AUSTIN (Nexstar) — America needs to think differently when it comes to boosting manufacturing of semiconductor chips, according to one Texas senator.

These chips are found in appliances, phones, cars and other technology, including some of the U.S.’ most advanced weapons systems at the Pentagon. The issue is that these chips are mainly produced overseas, in nations such as China, and the supply chain can be easily disrupted.

In response to this threat, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) is pushing for a House passage of the CHIPS for America Act, which would incentivize U.S. semiconductor manufacturing, research and development and supply chain security. The incentivization would come through a major refundable tax credit which would cover up to 40% of the manufacturer’s upfront cost.

“Anything that’s in the national security realm, we need to break our supply chain out of the region [China] and bring it in either into the United States, or with allied nations where we can better protect it,” explained McCaul in an interview earlier this month.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) expressed similar sentiments in June when he toured Samsung’s Austin semiconductor manufacturing site and spoke about the need for semiconductor chips to be made in America.

“What China is doing is they want to become the dominant economy, and the dominant superpower in the world and that’s a vulnerability for the United States, both economically and from a national security standpoint,” asserted the senator.

McCaul said this will be attractive to businesses.

“They want to do this in America, we just need to incentivize them to do so – it’s not in our interest to have a compromised chip coming out of a region, say China’s influence, that may or may not be compromised and going into our national security apparatus and into our national weapon systems,” he explained.

Also, McCaul hopes the act could provide an economic boost for the City of Austin. Samsung already has a semiconductor manufacturing site in the city, and Intel and IBM are considering a joint venture which might be based in Austin.

“I think you’ll see more and more of these fabrication plants popping up in this area, which will create high paying jobs. And for each job it does create, it creates five more jobs in our Austin economy. It could be a really big boom for our economy here, but also to protect our national security,” said the congressman who represents a district that includes parts of the Greater Houston and Greater Austin regions.

Both Rep. McCaul and Sen. Cornyn see the CHIPS for America Act as a proactive solution to address the shortage.

“This is just something we need to get done and maintain our vigilance, so that it does get done before we fall prey to this vulnerability,” said Sen. Cornyn.

Balloon safety measures move slowly after deadly Texas crash

Patricia Morgan looked up to the sky above her son’s Colorado home to see a hot air balloon.

“On the side it said: ‘Bucket List,’” she said. “That was on my daughter’s bucket list.”

Morgan remembers her daughter and granddaughter as the “dare devils” of the family, which is why they boarded a hot air balloon in Lockhart, Texas on a July day in 2016.

ORIGINAL STORY: 16 killed in hot air balloon crash near Lockhart

“It’s no longer the same,” she cried.

Patricia Morgan's daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by: Patricia Morgan)
Patricia Morgan’s daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by Patricia Morgan)

This month marks five years since Morgan lost both women in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in United States history. They were two of the 16 people, including the balloon pilot, who were killed in a fiery crash. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the pilot was “as impaired as a drunk driver” when he flew the balloon into a power line. They said Alfred “Skip” Nichols had taken a mixture of prescription medications such as Prozac, Valium and oxycodone.

Morgan joined forces with federal lawmakers to push for changes to the way balloon rides are regulated. In the fall of 2018, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) both worked on bipartisan legislation to require medical and physical exams for commercial balloon pilots, similar to what’s required for commercial airline pilots.

The legislation passed, but as the five-year anniversary of the crash approaches, Morgan is frustrated to see the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hasn’t put any rules or regulations on the issue into practice.

“The FAA has delayed and delayed, even after the law, which I thought was explicit. They now claim they need a regulation before they can do anything,” Rep. Doggett explained. “Just a spirit of indifference.”

The NTSB is an independent government agency, which investigates accidents and crashes. They also make safety recommendations to the federal agency that regulates the aircraft industry, the FAA.

Just a few months ago, the NTSB submitted brand new safety recommendations targeting hot air balloons and other paid passenger operations, such as vintage aircraft flights and parachute jump flights. They asked the FAA to consider requiring more oversight into the safety management of these operations.

IN-DEPTH: Hot air balloon crash history in Texas

At a board meeting in March, the NTSB said “these operations, which carry thousands of passengers for compensation or hire each year, are not held to the same maintenance, airworthiness and operational standards as air carrier, commuter and on-demand, and air tour operations.”

A spokesperson for the FAA sent KXAN documents acknowledging the latest NTSB recommendations. The document states it “will assess the feasibility of these safety recommendations.” It said the agency would provide an update by the end of the year.

“When we first started working and looking into this, we realized the FAA was slow,” he said.

Patricia Morgan's daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by Patricia Morgan)
Patricia Morgan’s daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by Patricia Morgan)

Representative John Cyrier (R-Lockhart) lives about four miles from the crash site and represents the area at the state legislature. He said there wasn’t much he could do to make change here in Texas, since the industry is regulated at the federal level.

Cyrier is an airplane pilot and flight enthusiast himself, so he said he knows how important physical competence is to being a pilot. He said he was “shocked” in 2016 to find out there weren’t requirements already in place for balloon pilots.

“When you do hear of other accidents that are very similar, it’s another reminder that people have lost their loved ones,” he said.

Last month, five people died in a hot air balloon accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Officials said the balloon hit a power line — separating the balloon-like part of the vessel, called an envelope, from the gondola where passengers stand. Bystanders captured video of the envelope as it floated in the sky after the crash, and KXAN’s media partners in Albuquerque report one man even tried using a fire extinguisher to help put out the basket when it was on fire.

The FAA spokesperson told KXAN the pilot in the Albuquerque crash did have a medical certification, like the 2018 legislation would require. Authorities are still investigating this crash.

“I don’t know how many more lives may be lost, because they have delayed and ignored the recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board,” Doggett said.

He emphasized the medical certification was “just the start,” but urged the FAA to take action on the latest NTSB recommendations, as well.

MORE: 5 who died in New Mexico hot air balloon crash identified

Authorities begin their investigation at the Lockhart balloon crash site in 2016. (KXAN Photo)
Authorities begin their investigation at the Lockhart balloon crash site in 2016. (KXAN Photo)

“It was just like re-living the accident all over again,” Morgan said, noting the similarities in the two crashes — aside from the state-of-mind of the pilot.

“That angers me, because nothing gets done,” she said. “Unfortunately, I just don’t think FAA understands the horrific impact this has on everybody: all the families, the victims, everybody involved in the balloon industry. I continue to say, ‘The FAA shirks their responsibilities,’ and the NTSB has been on them for years and years and years. Still to this day, nothing’s getting done.”

Hundreds of death reports for people who died in custody are incomplete or filed late

When someone dies in the custody of Texas law enforcement, state law requires that agency to submit a specific report to the attorney general detailing the incident, but a KXAN investigation has found that hundreds of these reports have been filed late or left incomplete in recent years.

Josh Hinkle sat down with Senior Investigative Producer David Barer and KXAN Live host Will DuPree to discuss their Dead & Undone investigation.

Beginning in 1983, law enforcement agencies were required to submit a specific form if a person died in their custody. The goal of this form was to promote transparency and accountability within law enforcement agencies.

Hinkle summarized the specific information the form collects.

“When they fill out this form, basically it tells people a lot of the details that happened with the arrest and with the death. And it even goes so far as to kind of give an indication of the events that led up to that death. If it’s detailed enough at the minimum, it’s supposed to give you the basic details about when someone died, how they died, the manner of death. And the medical examiners form is usually put in there as well,” explained Hinkle.

Texas laws and legal loopholes make it difficult to obtain records on the cases of custodial death. This form is one of the only documents that is supposed to be available to the public within thirty days of the death happening. It should also be easy to access by appearing on the Attorney General’s website. 

David Barer discovered the discrepancies with the form when he was looking into incidents of custodial deaths in Texas shortly after George Floyd was murdered. He utilized the Attorney General’s website where these reports are available, and data published by a nonprofit called the Texas Justice Initiative.

“What popped out to us that we covered in our investigation, Dead & Undone, was these reports were being filed late or incompletely. And this was happening in hundreds of cases around the state, and it had actually gotten worse during the pandemic,” said Barer.

In response to KXAN’s investigation, legislation was filed during the 87th session. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) filed the legislation because he has an interest in criminal justice and some of the incomplete or late reports were in the Austin and larger Travis County area.

A custodial death report is an extremely important document for journalists, and the families of people who have died in custody, so Hinkle participated in the hearings on this specific piece of legislation.  

“We know the importance of having good witnesses in those hearings to really relay the importance of these issues to lawmakers that are considering making certain bills laws. So, I decided that it would be a good idea for KXAN to be one of the witnesses to talk about the challenges that we had faced as reporters. And so, I decided to go to the Capitol on that hearing day and testify myself,” said Hinkle.

Although the legislation did not ultimately pass, Hinkle is “confident that we have gotten the attention of lawmakers, and they understand the importance of this police transparency aspect.”

Further, there has been progress on other police transparency legislation.

In 1999, Jamie Mayberry, a gay man from Kennedy, Texas, disappeared. This prompted KXAN to investigate the NamUs system in Texas, which is the national missing and unidentified persons system.

Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed into law a bill related to NamUs.

“It will require all police departments and medical examiner’s offices to submit missing persons details to this public portal that you, or I, or any member of the public can access online, so we can maybe help solve these cases or bring some closure to some families a little faster,” explained Hinkle.

To learn more about the Dead & Undone project, listen to KXAN’s Catalyst podcast.

New Texas law promises quicker medical care for patients

House Bill 3459 officially takes effect Sept. 1, and promises quicker care for Texas patients.

The piece of legislation aims to cut down the prior authorization process to get patients the treatment they need when speed matters.

“If I order things like a CAT scan to evaluate my patient’s breast cancer, to make sure it hasn’t spread somewhere else, frequently, I have to go through an insurance company to make sure that they think that’s okay,” said Dr. Debra Patt, a breast oncologist and member of the Texas Medical Association.

Dr. Patt said the prior authorization process often delays her ability to treat and evaluate her patients.

“You can imagine that patients tremendous anxiety with their new cancer diagnosis if they have to wait a week or two to get information that they can get appropriate scans,” Dr. Patt said.

According to TMA, eight in 10 Texas physicians reported having to obtain prior authorization for medical procedures and common prescriptions. Of those doctors, 85% reported that process delayed patient care, ranging from days to months.

“That can change a child with a urinary tract infection from a local problem to a septic illness that could be potentially life-threatening,” Dr. Patt explained.

House Bill 3459 gives doctors who have a 90% approval rating from an insurance company a ‘gold card,’ meaning they can skip the pre-approval process for that specific study.

“If you have prior authorizations that have been approved, and you have at least five of those in any six-month period, then it gives you a rolling approval when you order the same study,” Dr. Patt said.

But the Texas Association of Health Plans said these requirements are not enough.

“The way that it’s implemented, having just this very basic sampling, and a limited window of time, we can’t have a good assessment if physicians are really prescribing care and treatment in good faith. And it’s just an invitation for waste, fraud and abuse,” TAHP director of communications Alicia Pierce explained.

Pierce said there are better ways to speed up the process, including avoiding using a fax machine and passing legislation that would make it easier to correct clerical mistakes.

Pierce also added that if a patient has multiple providers, who prescribe multiple drugs, the insurance company would be the only one with oversight to catch a potential bad interaction that could cause side effects.

“You have multiple providers who are providing different drugs and different prescriptions that may not show up for the doctor. And insurance companies are the only ones that have that 360 view of the patient’s health care,” Pierce said.

But Dr. Patt said health insurance companies are just trying to manage costs.

“They’re not in patient rooms, giving care to patients every day,” Dr. Patt said.