Lawmakers pass bills spurred by KXAN investigations

Investigations
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AUSTIN (KXAN) – Texas lawmakers worked throughout the weekend deciding which bills to pass as the 86th Legislature came to an end on Monday. Some of those bills came after KXAN investigations into problems with red light cameras, opioid abuse by children and toll road drivers frustrated by late fees and inaccurate billing. Gov. Greg Abbott has until June 16 to either sign those bills into law or veto them.

Red light camera enforcement

A bill that would ban red light cameras across Texas is headed to Abbott’s desk. He’s expected to sign it into law since one of his campaign promises during his re-election effort was to ban the cameras.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, filed House Bill 1631, which was backed by nearly 100 lawmakers who served as co-authors. The bill passed the House and Senate earlier this month and was sent to Abbott last week for final approval.

There are more than 100 Texas lawmakers working to pull the plug on Texas red light cameras. The effort to strip the only enforcement element from the camera law passed the House Transportation Committee Thursday

The measure comes following a KXAN investigation that found hundreds of red light cameras across the state could be operating illegally based on how they were installed. In Austin, we found there was no signed, sealed engineering study for those cameras at nine intersections across town. Still, the city collected $5.6 million in fines between 2009 and July 2017.

When signed, the law will go into effect Sept. 1, 2019, but some cameras may not be removed right away due to an amendment that lets cities keep them in place until their contracts with the private companies run out.

Another amendment to the bill, by Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, also prevents the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles and county assessor-collector’s from refusing to register a vehicle if the person hasn’t paid fines related to red light camera enforcement.

Texas toll road troubles

Lawmakers approved a bill aimed at alleviating frustrations toll road drivers have when it comes to billing and payment practices statewide, specifically when it comes to electronic toll tags, including TxTag stickers.

“I am proud we finally passed SB 198 today, which addresses many of the common frustrations and concerns that Texans have related to toll road billing and payment practices by providing more uniformity and predictability for consumers across the state,” Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said in a Facebook post on May 21.

The bill comes following several KXAN investigations that revealed the Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees TxTag, sent 2.2 million debtor accounts to collections in 2017. KXAN also investigated issues with bills being sent to the wrong address and TxTag customers who received bills by mail instead of having funds automatically withdrawn from their accounts at a lower rate.

SB 198 will prohibit toll entities from sending an invoice to the owner of a vehicle without first checking to see whether there’s an active electronic toll account, such as a TxTag, tied to that vehicle. And, if a toll entity discovers a customer’s transponder didn’t work correctly more than 10 times in a 30-day period, the entity will be required to send that customer a notice. If signed, SB 198 would go into effect Sept. 1, 2020.

Lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 1311, which its author Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, says will solve some billing issues by modernizing toll road billing. It would require transportation agencies to offer an electronic option for drivers to receive toll bills instead of just sending those bills through the U.S. Postal Service. If signed, the bill will go into effect on Sept 1.

House Bill 803, authored by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, and four others, also was signed by the House and Senate and would provide greater transparency by increasing financial reporting requirements. The bill, if signed into law by Abbott, would require toll project entities to post information regarding the maturity of bonds for its toll projects, toll revenue and expenses and other related information on its website. If signed, it takes effect Sept. 1.

Maternal health issues

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, authored bills aimed at tracking certain information related to maternal care and postpartum depression, as Texas struggles with a high number of maternal deaths.

Senate Bill 748 will require certain information to be collected, including the number of children born to Medicaid recipients, how many women are screened for postpartum depression, the average number of days it takes for a woman to be screened for postpartum depression and when those women start related treatment under Medicaid or through the state’s Healthy Texas women program.

If signed, the bill goes into effect September 1. It also will require the state to develop a pilot program aimed at following mothers through their pregnancies to help reduce poor birth outcomes. The state will be required to include at least one rural county with a high rate of maternal mortality and morbidity as part of that program.

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 nearly died and wanted to make sure their stories aren’t forgotten as the state continues work to combat this public health issue.

Kolkhorst also authored Senate Bill 750, which will require the state to apply for any available federal funding that could go toward improving “the quality and accessibility of care for pregnant women with opioid use disorder enrolled in Medicaid during the prenatal and postpartum periods and for their children after birth,” according to an analysis of the bill. If signed, the bill is effective immediately and would expire on Sept. 1, 2021.

Senate Bill 436, authored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, also aims to improve maternal health for women with opioid abuse issues. In an analysis of her bill, Nelson notes “drug overdose is a leading cause of maternal deaths in Texas.”

That bill would require the state to develop best practices for treating opioid abuse among pregnant women in an effort to reduce the number of related overdoses by pregnant or postpartum women. The best practices would include an initiative to reduce the number of opioids prescribed before, during and after delivery. If signed, the bill takes effect immediately.

Protecting children from abusing 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 are lax.
Now, lawmakers have passed a bill by Nelson, that would give schools the ability to educate children about the dangers of opioid addiction and overdose.

Senate Bill 435 passed the House and Senate and on May 17 was sent to Gov. Abbott for his signature. It allows schools to teach students – at an appropriate grade level – about opioid addiction and abuse and methods for administering an opioid antagonist.

Lawmakers from the House and Senate also passed House Bill 2454, which requires increased education for certain physicians, physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses who are authorized to prescribe opioids. If signed, both of those bills will go into effect Sept. 1.

Funeral home licensing

Lawmakers passed a bill that allows the Texas Funeral Service Commission to take action against unlicensed individuals who perform funeral-related duties that require a license. House Bill 1540 also allows the commission to order a license holder to pay a refund to customers if they fail to fulfill terms of any agreement. If signed, that portion of the law will take effect Sept. 1.

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 since 2006, according to the Texas Department of Banking.

After our investigation, the department recovered more than $500,000 in restitution and hundreds of customers who lost thousands of dollars through prepaid funeral contracts with the funeral home are expected to be repaid.

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