Unlike their counterparts in the lieutenant governor’s race, the three Republicans vying to be the state’s next attorney general — state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney and Texas Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman of Houston — have largely refrained from drawing any knives in public.
But a message from Branch’s campaign manager that was published on a conservative blog earlier this week — despite being sent “on background” — highlighted one line of attack being worked behind the scenes: smart meters.
When Smitherman served as the Public Utility Commission chairman, the agency mandated the installation of those advanced meters throughout the state to measure energy use. At the time, he widely promoted the use of smart meters.
Since then, the issue has become increasingly controversial among a small but vocal segment of the population that has raised privacy and health concerns about the devices.
Smitherman has responded by distancing himself from the policy. In July, more than two years after he left the commission, he sent a letter to the PUC encouraging it to adopt an opt-out provision, which it did in August.
This week, a letter from Enrique Marquez, Branch’s campaign manager, appeared online, asking, “Commissioner Smitherman has been very public in his support of smart meters in the past — why the sudden change?”
The note from Marquez, which referred to Smitherman’s current position as “blatant hypocrisy,” was prompted by a post on a different conservative blog that placed the blame for the smart meter mandate on Branch and Paxton, both of whom voted for a 2005 bill that directed the PUC to develop plans related to smart meters.
Smitherman, through a spokesman, argued that he had not changed his tune on smart meters, but had rather been “carrying out the directive from the Legislature” when he pushed for the mandate, and then, after waiting an appropriate amount of time since leaving the commission, clarified his personal opinion this year.
“Barry’s the only candidate in the race that has expressed his desire to the PUC for Texas residents to be able to opt out of smart meters and the Legislature-Ken Paxton-Dan Branch mandate,” Smitherman spokesman Jared Craighead said.
The 2005 legislation in question, House Bill 2129 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, passed without opposition and said “the Legislature encourages the adoption of these technologies by electric utilities in this state.” It also required the commission to study and identify ways to “remove barriers to the use of advanced metering and metering information networks or of other advanced transmission and distribution technologies.”
But Bonnen said the legislation left the specifics of the state’s approach up to the commission. “For Barry Smitherman or anyone else to suggest otherwise is just a cover-your-ass is all it is,” he said. “It’s pretty cut and dry. There is zero mandate in the legislation.”
This echoes the sentiments Bonnen expressed to the PUC in a 2012 letter. While he acknowledged that the bill required the agency to develop a plan for the deployment of smart meters, he continued: “I am greatly concerned that certain providers are acting beyond the purview of HB 2129 by forcing smart meters on customers. This was not the intent of the legislation."
Justin Padgett of Texans Against Smart Meters said he felt like the account from Smitherman’s campaign was not “forthright and honest.” He also said he had not been able ascertain the positions of the other candidates. “They probably don’t differ all that much,” he said.
Indeed, as with many issues, there does not appear to be much daylight between the candidates’ current positions on smart meters.
“We have heard concerns expressed about smart meters by voters across Texas,” Marquez said in a statement, “and Dan Branch is committed to using all avenues as AG to protecting the privacy of Texas electric consumers.”
Paxton said: “I support a competitive electric market and the freedom for individuals to choose their own electric provider. I believe competition should include the ability for an individual to choose or decline to choose particular utility equipment, including smart meters, free from penalties.”
He also alleged that the PUC “took liberties to create an individual mandate for smart meters in Texas, which I oppose, and which was against the intent of the Legislature.”
But Tom “Smitty” Smith, the director of the Texas branch of Public Citizen, said that if Branch and Paxton opt to go after Smitherman over smart meters, “they should go back and look at the data before they get on their high horses.”
Smith said Smitherman and the PUC should be praised for assuring that the best technology was used and protocols put in place to minimize security concerns.
“Smitherman, in my mind, wisely made some high-quality decisions that will save Texans money for generations by assuring they are more universally available,” Smith said.
But the real question, he said, noting the small numbers of people who have opted out of smart meters, was, “What does this have to do with the attorney general’s race? This is niche politics at the most microscopic.”