KXAN investigations help Central Texans, prompt change at the Capitol

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Texas lawmakers filed more than 7,000 bills on topics across the board as of Friday, which was the 60-day deadline period for representatives and senators to submit proposed legislation during the 86th Legislature.

More than a dozen bills came after KXAN investigations into problems such as maternal mortality and morbidity statewide, harassment in the workplace and toll road drivers frustrated by what they say are “ridiculous” late fees and other billing issues.

Texas toll roads

For years, KXAN investigated concerns with toll roads, including in 2017 when the state’s tolling authority sent 2.2 million customers – some who say they were wrongfully billed – to a collections agency that levied nearly $1 billion in fees.

Since that investigation, the state cut ties with its collections agency and waived $1.3 billion in late fees for customers. A new law also went into effect last spring capping late fees at $48 a year. But, toll customers are still reaching out to KXAN almost weekly with concerns they’re being improperly charged, double billed or experiencing issues with TxTag payments.

Now, several lawmakers are looking to pass additional bills to protect toll road drivers in Central Texas and beyond.

Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, filed a bill that would require toll operators to immediately notify customers with toll tags if a payment is declined or otherwise couldn’t be processed.

Some customers who opt to place a toll tag on their vehicle say they receive bills in the mail instead of getting charged to their online toll account. To help keep customers informed when that mistake happens, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed a bill that would require toll agencies to send a notice to a customer if their toll tag did not work properly 10 times in a 30-day period. The bill would also prohibit toll companies from sending an invoice to a toll customer without first checking to see if the customer has an active electronic toll tag for their vehicle.

Two other bills Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, proposed would make toll roads free once they’re completely paid off and require non-tolled frontage roads along any newly-constructed toll road that is built along the route of a previously existing free roadway.

Mothers dying after birth

Last month, a KXAN investigation highlighted issues with the tracking of maternal deaths and near deaths. Although Texas mothers are dying or nearly dying after childbirth, it’s not clear how many due to errors with data collection.

KXAN collected video diaries from more than a dozen mothers who want to make sure their stories aren’t forgotten as the state works to combat this public health issue. Those women detailed critical changes they say could have prevented their near-death experiences. We also shared the investigation with several lawmakers.

Just weeks after our investigation, Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed a bill that would require “collecting data at the time a pregnant woman is admitted for delivery, on the day of delivery, 42 days postpartum and 364 days postpartum.”

The bill would ultimately create a maternal mortality and morbidity data registry to better track deaths and near deaths up to one year after the woman gives birth.

“I drafted this legislation in direct response to expert recommendations over the last two years, as well as more recent outcries from moms and stakeholders across the state, all agreeing that we are still lacking high quality, reliable data on the circumstances of maternal deaths,” Thierry told KXAN.

Railroad commission

KXAN exposed undisclosed financial ties between Texas’ top oil regulator and the companies her commission regulates. Since 2012, Railroad Commission of Texas Chairman Christi Craddick voted hundreds of times on items impacting the same companies that contribute to her family’s wealth.

A year-long KXAN analysis of commission agendas, appraisal records and county documents reveals her decisions have the power to impact some operators’ ability to drill and pump oil and gas from the same leases in which the Craddicks’ have financial stakes.

The commission doesn’t have anything to do with railroads but instead oversees and catalogs well-drilling permits, as well as oil and natural gas production.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed a bill that would prohibit commissioners from knowingly accepting “a political contribution, and shall refuse a political contribution that is received, from a party in a contested case before the commission or a political committee affiliated with such a party” during a certain timeframe.

Anchia also filed a bill that would change the commission’s name to the Texas Energy Resources Commission.

Law enforcement withholding information

A KXAN investigation uncovered agencies across the state using a loophole in the Texas Public Information Act to keep details about dozens of in-custody deaths secret.

The law gives law enforcement agencies discretion to withhold information in closed criminal cases that did not result in a conviction or deferred adjudication. This includes denying records to families of suspects who die in custody.

But, Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said lawmakers never meant the law to apply to cases where a suspect dies in police custody. He filed legislation this session that would make certain information regarding those in-custody deaths available to the public.

House Bill 147 closes a significant loophole in our public information law that’s had tragic consequences for Texas families and Texas transparency,” Moody said of the proposed bill.

Harassment and discrimination at state agencies

KXAN investigated hundreds of allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation at government agencies across Texas. Dozens of workers have sued state agencies in recent years on those grounds, according to court records.

Last year, KXAN revealed more than 200 allegations of workplace harassment, discrimination and retaliation over the last five years at the Texas Department of Transportation. Soon after our investigation, TxDOT executive director James Bass addressed employees in a video posted to YouTube.

“Those reports were hard to hear because they made it sound like the department failed to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves and that perhaps some thought we fail to provide an inclusive atmosphere where everyone can work and contribute,” Bass said in the video. “But as difficult as those reports were to hear, I look at them as an opportunity – an opportunity to help our workforce better reflect the people we serve.”

Some lawmakers filed bills on this topic, including one that would allow employees who leave a job due to sexual harassment to be eligible for unemployment. Another bill defines sexual harassment and another allows relief for anyone who is subjected to discriminatory compensation.

Red light camera enforcement

The Texas Transportation Code requires cities to perform engineering studies before installing cameras at traffic stops, including those used to charge a civil fine for running a red light.

In 2017, a KXAN investigation found that of 50 cities across Texas that responded to open record requests, only three appeared to have performed the required engineering studies for red light camera enforcement.

We filed an open records request with the city and found no signed, sealed engineering study for the red light cameras at nine intersections across Austin. Between 2009 and July 2017, we found the city of Austin collected $5.6 million in fines. 

Lawmakers are renewing efforts to ban red light camera enforcement. More than 100 house lawmakers have co-sponsored a bill that would ban the red light traffic cameras and any fees assessed by them.

Funeral home licensing

Last fall, KXAN revealed a well-known Austin funeral home had sold hundreds of pre-paid funeral contracts but was unlicensed to do so for more than a decade.

KXAN found Peel and Son Funeral Home, Inc. collected more than $500,000 in prepaid funeral payments from nearly 250 customers, or about 235 contracts, since 2006, according to the department.

After our investigation, the Texas Department of Banking recovered more than $500,000 in restitution and hundreds of customers who lost thousands of dollars through prepaid funeral contracts with Peel and Son Funeral Home, Inc. will be repaid.

“That’s a big relief,” said Hazel Bonilla, whose mother, Josie, is one of those customers. “Now I can focus on other things.”

Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, are proposing a law that would require the Texas Funeral Service Commission to notify the Texas Attorney General if they believe a cemetery organization discriminated and violated the law.

Alarming amount of child opioids

Last year, a KXAN investigation found it is unclear just how often doctors are prescribing highly-addictive opioids to Texas children since regulations tracking and analyzing that information is lax.

“Nobody is doing very much to look at the number of prescriptions and unfortunately it’s only after there’s a bad outcome that anyone has any understanding that a physician or dentist or a nurse practitioner is misinformed about the safety of opioids and children,” said Dr. Rae Brown, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

To educate children about the dangers of opioid addiction and overdose, Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, proposed a bill to allow schools to teach students – at an appropriate grade level – about opioid addiction and abuse and methods for administering an opioid antagonist.

Thierry also filed a bill that would require all opioids to require a label in all caps and 14-point font saying, “Warning: This drug is an opioid. The use of an opioid may result in addiction to opioids and death.”

Illegal dumping

Various shots of the site where TxDOT crews were dumping various items. (KXAN Photo)

KXAN investigators caught Texas Department of Transportation workers operating an illegal dumpsite in Dripping Springs in late 2017. Following a tip, KXAN set up hidden cameras and caught state workers in the act of dumping truckloads of garbage, road waste, dead animals and oil sludge in an unlined pit.

The reporting prompted a state environmental investigation, and TxDOT workers admitted the dumping went on for years. TxDOT was cited for violations of waste disposal laws and agreed to excavate 6,000 tons of waste and tainted soil.

This session, Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, filed a bill that would create the “Texas Rural Water Advisory Council.” Part of the 15-member council’s core duties would include assisting with initiatives that would prevent or mitigate illegal dumping in rural communities.

Lawmakers will have a total of 140 days to consider and vote for any proposed bills they’d like to see become law. The 86th legislature ends May 27.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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