AUSTIN (KXAN) — With the 88th Texas legislative session underway, reporting from KXAN’s investigative team has delved into some of the biggest policy issues statewide — many of which have solutions lawmakers can put in place.
State data reported a record number of people experiencing a mental health crisis who were still waiting in jails for beds in state hospitals. These hospitals don’t have enough staff to operate at full capacity, limiting the number of patients who can access their resources.
A statewide office to better oversee the mental competency waitlist and track related data on intakes and demand would be a fix lawmakers could implement. In 2021, Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Asutin, proposed legislation to improve state oversight. To date, legislation related to mental competency hasn’t yet been filed in the 88th legislative session.
KXAN investigators uncovered hundreds of medical debt lawsuits piling up in Central Texas courts, with some patients who’ve sued telling KXAN they have been unable to get an itemized invoice from their hospitals to explain why they were being charged certain amounts.
Several Texas lawmakers told KXAN they plan on filing legislation for medical billing fixes this legislative session. Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said she wanted to re-examine the Attorney General’s debt collection act complaint system. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he planned to work with Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, to require medical providers to provide itemized invoices. To date, none have been filed.
In the 2021 regular legislative session, State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, filed a bill that would have required the state to update data on maternal deaths and near-deaths. As the session came to a close, it was one of a number of bills that didn’t make a midnight deadline, which would’ve led to its hearing on the Texas House floor.
A statewide maternal mortality and morbidity data registry would offer real-time reporting on maternal health outcomes. The bill has again been filed in the 2023 legislative session.
Missing in Texas
Every few days, Robert and Sandra Perez headed from Conroe to Austin to look for their missing son, Timothy. They filed a missing persons report with Austin Police, and Round Rock Police responded to a welfare concern call and met a man later identified as Timothy. RRPD said they believe Timothy was voluntarily missing.
In October, missing human remains found in Williamson County were identified as belonging to Timothy.
Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston, is in the process of determining if any updates are needed to address potential loopholes in the “John and Joseph’s Law” passed last session. Legislation has yet to be filed in this legislative session.
No Air Conditioning
A state lawmaker declared a state of emergency for renters going without air conditioning this past summer amid extensive, record-level heat. State Rep. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin, said in July she planned to file legislation to punish landlords who allow it to go on too long.
No legislation has been filed yet.
Racial Profiling: Failure to Report
Despite hundreds of examples of non-compliance with Texas’ racial profiling law, the one state agency with exclusive authority to punish Texas police agencies has never exercised that authority. Legislation could soon force the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to use its power to hold departments accountable.
Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, previously expressed his interest to KXAN investigators in filing the legislation but did not run for re-election. No bills have been filed yet.
TxGANG Gang Database
The State Auditor’s Office conducted a probe into Texas’ gang database in 2022, with the audit identifying more than 5,000 records that were uploaded without the required information and more than 1,000 that hadn’t been validated within the past five years, violating a federal requirement.
Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, told KXAN her intent to file legislation that would provide more avenues for people to challenge their inclusion in the gang database as well as to get themselves removed, among other provisions. A bill has been filed this legislative session.
OAG Crime Victim Compensation
Following a KXAN investigation into dysfunction in the state’s Crime Victims’ Compensation fund, causing delays in victims getting help, Texas lawmakers said they would examine legislative fixes, including more money for the division overseeing the program.
Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Kyle, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said they wanted to help streamline the application process and change compensation limits for the fund. A bill has been filed for this current legislative session.
Nonprofit Disaster Grant Transparency
When natural disasters like hurricanes hit Texas, state and local governments often step in and provide money to victims. And as surely as disaster aid is distributed, there are scammers and grifters swooping in to score some for themselves.
In 2019, Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, sought to protect disaster aid recipients — namely seniors — from fraud. But a law he authored that year to shield those individuals from scams is having an unintended consequence. He said the law’s purpose was to keep the identities of people receiving aid confidential, and that a list of people receiving aid could be used by “scam artists.”
Deshotel said he would consider improving the law so the use of disaster aid grants for nonprofits isn’t shrouded in mystery. Legislation hasn’t yet been filed in this legislative session.
The Texas Education Agency investigated more than 100 cases of educators unlawfully restraining special education students since 2015. In April 2022, state records showed there were as many as 10 open investigations involving school districts spanning the state. Our investigation highlights cases from Central Texas, including two teachers who went to trial in Hutto.
Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, filed House Bill 133, a piece of legislation that would prohibit certain restraints on students with special needs — specifically using any variation of a floor or ground restraint. A bill has been filed this legislative session.
More than 100 minors are supposed to be starting their court-ordered rehabilitation and treatment programs on Texas Juvenile Justice Department campuses. Instead, the agency scrambled to develop and start treatment for kids stuck in 43 local juvenile detention facilities scattered across the state while it worked to fix crippling staffing shortages on the state level.
Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has filed House Bill 458, which would require TJJD to accept custody of a juvenile no later than 30 days after the judge signs the disposition order.
The Exit — Teacher Shortage
As a new school year begins, Texas is reeling from a record number of teacher resignations. While leaders and districts look for solutions to combat recruitment and retention challenges, some worry classrooms may continue to be left without qualified educators. But what’s really behind the shortage? To find out, KXAN obtained thousands of exit surveys detailing why teachers left and the impact it has on students.
Multiple bills have been filed this legislative session to adjust cost-of-living for the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. Filed bills also aim to address the issue via the proposed creation of a Texas Teacher Recruitment Scholarship Program and Texas Teacher Retention Incentive Program.
Any peace officer in the state of Texas can order a peace officer emergency detention if they believe a person is at risk of harming themselves or others. From 2017 to when our investigation launched in 2021, at least 1,500 minors in Austin had been sent to crisis facilities after police officers ordered them there, but KXAN found the state legislature requires little training for police officers on mental health.
Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-North Richland Hills, has filed House Bill 201, which aims for schools to report to the Public Education Information Management System how many students at public and charter schools are under peace officer emergency detention.
Plan C Pills
After Texas lawmakers passed the country’s most restrictive abortion law, more people began turning to online pharmacies for access to medication abortion. State leaders then passed more legislation attempting to stop pills from being sent through the mail, but the law may do little to halt organizations operating outside the state and the country.
Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, has filed Senate Bill 78 which would codify that physicians can administer abortion-inducing drugs to pregnant people and states that a political subdivision can create ordinances or charters conflicting with this section.
Nursing Home Generators
Hundreds of Texas nursing homes and assisted living facilities have generators on-site for backup power, but hundreds still do not, according to a survey conducted by Texas Health and Human Services.
Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, submitted a bill in the last legislative cycle that he plans to amend for the 2023 session. Under this updated version, Thompson proposes senior nursing facilities and assisted living facilities must have generators or some kind of backup power source.
Nursing Home: Staffing
Lawmakers behind the Texas House Human Services Committee considered ways to improve the lives and safety of people living and working in long-term care facilities, largely focused on workforce challenges and staff retention issues.
Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-North Richland Hills, filed House Bill 104 to offer student loan repayment assistance for nurses employed by a long-term care facility, amid the nursing home staffing crisis.
Years ago, Texas lawmakers called on the state agency tasked with licensing and regulating animal doctors to address some “concerning” data reliability issues. Specifically, the agency was supposed to fix its licensee look-up website — a tool that enables pet owners to search for their veterinarian’s disciplinary history. Just months before this agency’s next legislative review, KXAN investigators discovered dozens of disciplinary records still missing from the look-up tool, reporting that resulted in top agency officials resigning and a renewed push for timelier transparency.
Several lawmakers have said they expected to take legislative action if the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners didn’t start complying with recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Commission from 2017, 2021 and again in 2022. No bills have yet been filed in this legislative session.
Winter Storm and ERCOT Grid
On Feb. 15, 2021, the Texas power grid was four minutes and 37 seconds away from completely collapsing, an event that would have triggered a “black start.” It would have taken months to mend Texas’ electric infrastructure, and left millions without power for just as long.
Sen. Judith Zaffrini, D-Laredo, has since filed Senate Bill 31 related to the interconnection of the ERCOT power grid to grids outside the ERCOT power region, following that February 2021 winter storm and continued power scales in 2022.
Foster Care System
More than 200 children slept in state offices for multiple nights in March 2021 as the “capacity crisis” in the Texas foster care system continues to worsen.
According to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, during February 2020 — before the coronavirus began to spread in Texas communities — 34 children spent two or more nights sleeping in DFPS offices. By March 2021, that number had increased by nearly seven times, with 237 kids sleeping in offices.
Several lawmakers on the House Human Services Committee and the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services have promised to make changes to DFPS in the wake of the children without placement crisis. Some bills have been filed, while others tending to funding, bed capacity and better reporting and record keeping remain to be seen.
Menstrual Products Sales Tax
Texas state legislators could take action in the next legislative session to remove the state’s sales tax on menstrual products.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, filed a bill in advance of the 88th Texas Legislative Session that proposes a “sales and use tax exemption for certain feminine hygiene products.” Under HB70, those exemptions would be applied to tampons, pads, menstrual cups and other menstrual products.
Sen. Drew Springer, R-Weatherford, filed similar legislation in the Texas Senate.
Fentanyl Testing Strips
A small testing strip, usually costing no more than $2 a piece, could save lives in Texas by alerting a drug user to fentanyl mixed into a drug. But fentanyl testing strips are classified under Texas law as drug paraphernalia, making them illegal to have.
A bill filed during the 2021 legislative session managed to gain bipartisan support, but never made it to the House floor for a vote. Now, Rep. James Talarico, D-Austin, has authored House Bill 85, one of several lawmakers to carry the measure into the 2023 legislative session.
In late 2021, KXAN re-launched an investigation into a problem our team knows well — a topic we already tackled for two years with ongoing reports — a criminal operation Texas promised to shut down, with no success. We discovered crooks still have the ability to access the Department of Motor Vehicles’ dealership database with relative ease. The result is a $200 million enterprise where real temporary tags, with fake information, are printed and sold to all 50 states, giving violent criminals the ability to hide from law enforcement in plain sight. Our new investigation explores how effective the TxDMV’s oversight measures are and what it can do in the future.
State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, charged with holding a Texas House hearing back in April, told us he wants to “investigate this issue in greater detail,” calling on the TxDMV to adopt “ironclad rules.” No bills have yet been filed this legislative session.
February 2022 marked five years since Texas neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch – dubbed “Dr. Death” – was sentenced to life in prison, revealing how easy it can be for dangerous doctors to transfer between hospitals. Now, KXAN finds Texas patients aren’t getting all the information they need about some doctors’ histories. Our team searched thousands of disciplinary records from more than a dozen states, showing some physicians coming to Texas to leave their pasts behind – a discovery prompting the Texas Medical Board and lawmakers to promise change.
Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Dallas, is drafting a bill with the following proposals:
- Preventing doctors who had licenses revoked in other states from being able to practice in Texas
- Making it a crime to lie on TMB license application
- Require an audit of the TMB
- Close a “loophole” that allows hospitals to suspend doctors for less than 30 days to avoid reporting them to the National Practitioner Data Bank
- Adopt a transparency model similar to North Carolina
- Wants the TMB’s public members to have a patient advocacy background
Several other lawmakers have told KXAN they’re interested in filing related legislation.
Dead Suspect Loophole
Texas’ “Dead Suspect Loophole” could be used to block the release of law enforcement records related to the school shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two adults dead, transparency advocates and lawmakers fear.
For years, KXAN investigators have explored Texas law enforcement’s widespread use of an open records measure known as the “Dead Suspect Loophole.” Lawmakers have repeatedly sought to close the loophole, which allows police to withhold information in closed criminal cases that don’t go through the court process — even when a suspect dies in police custody.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso; State Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., D-Del Rio; and Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, expressed interest in legislation related to closing the loophole after the Uvalde shooting. No bills have been filed yet related to the measure for the 2023 legislative session.