KXAN Austin

State of Texas: Migrant busing among hot-button issues driving voters in new Texas poll

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Governor Greg Abbott’s move to bus migrants from the border to cities east and northeast hit a new level this past week. The state-funded program sent busloads of migrants to be dropped off outside the Washington, DC home of Vice President Kamala Harris.

The move comes after Harris claimed that the border is secure during an interview last Sunday on NBC’s Meet The Press.

“The Biden-Harris Administration continues ignoring and denying the historic crisis at our southern border, which has endangered and overwhelmed Texas communities for almost two years,” Governor Abbott said in a press release.

“Our supposed Border Czar, Vice President Kamala Harris, has yet to even visit the border to see firsthand the impact of the open border policies she has helped implement,” Abbott added. He vowed to continue sending migrants to Washington, DC.

In the past month, Abbott has ramped up efforts to bus migrants to cities led by Democrats. This, as the number of migrants crossing the border has hit record numbers, straining resources in Texas cities near the border.

Critics have called Abbott’s move a political stunt. But new polling shows a majority of Texas voters approve of the Governor’s move.

“Republicans are wildly in favor of it. Independents mostly like it, most Democrats really don’t like it,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. The project’s new statewide poll asked voters whether they supported or opposed Texas paying to bus foreign migrants awaiting asylum hearings to other parts of the country.

“Overall, 52% supported it, 35% opposed, 80% of Republicans supported it and about half of independents,” Henson said. “In an election environment. That’s pretty good for Greg Abbott,” he added.

The poll showed Abbott holding a 5% lead over Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in the race for governor. O’Rourke has campaigned across Texas, making an effort to win over independent voters and disenchanted Republicans. The poll suggests that will be a tough task.

“Among independents, Greg Abbott is 37% favorable, 43% unfavorable,” Henson said. “Doesn’t seem that great until you look at Beto O’Rourke’s independent ratings. He’s 23% favorable, 63% unfavorable,” he added.

The poll asked voters what they saw as the most important issue facing the state. Immigration and border security topped the list, with 26% of voters ranking them as the most important. For Republicans, 40% ranked it as the top issue.

The economy ranked second with 13% of Texans calling that the most important issue facing the state. Abortion and Gun Violence ranked third and fourth in the poll.

The poll asked voters to score whether elected officials in Texas have done enough to prevent mass shootings. Overall, 57% said officials have done too little, but there’s a strong partisan divide.

“That changes across the parties,” Henson noted. “Only 32% of Republicans said too little, 86% of Democrats said too little.”

Henson said the response to a question about whether same-sex marriage should be legal in Texas surprised him. Just over half of voters who responded, 53%, said it should be legal. Almost a third, 32% said not legal. Exactly 50% of Texas Republicans in the poll said that gay marriage should be illegal.

“For a lot of people this feels like a settled issue,” Henson said. But he said the poll results suggest there could be battles ahead.

“I think that that kind of tells us something about what’s going on beneath the surface. Not so much in the discussion of same-sex marriage, but in some of these other issues that have been bubbling up like you know, public education, the content of school libraries,” Henson said.

“I think there’s still a kind of resentment that’s out there in the wake of the cultural changes that have felt to many of us like they were set but may not be as set as we thought,” he concluded.

Medical debt lawsuits hit Texas hospital patients

An anonymous tip led KXAN investigators to discover hundreds of medical debt lawsuits piling up in one Central Texas court filed on behalf of one local hospital. While its collection methods are legal, what’s most important to convey is the impact they have on patients. Our resulting investigation aims to show you what can happen financially when you face medical debthow you can avoid it and why Texas leaders may soon take a closer look at the state’s debt collection system.

Those who feel a debt collection is improper under the Texas Debt Collection Act can file a complaint with the Office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Thousands of Texans have done so in the past several years for various debt-related issues.

The state’s debt collection act protects consumers from abusive collection tactics like harassment or threats of arrest or seizing assets without proper court proceedings. Debt collectors cannot take a person’s wages or home in Texas if it is declared a homestead.

Paxton’s office can investigate and punish violators of the act, but that rarely happens, according to records KXAN obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.

From January 2019 through March 2022, Paxton’s office received over 4,300 debt collection complaints. At least 410 – roughly 10% – were related to medical debt, according to complaint records.

As all those complaints came in, Paxton’s office took enforcement action only once for a violation related to the act since 2019, and it wasn’t related to medical debt.

A spokesperson for Paxton’s office said the debt collection act is one of “dozens and dozens” of consumer protection statutes the agency enforces, and it has hundreds of active investigations for consumer statutory violations. Paxton’s office also touted its successes in consumer protection cases against opioid manufacturers and other companies that have netted millions of dollars for the state.

In Texas, there are nearly 2,400 companies registered with the state that can buy and collect debt, according to Secretary of State records. Any one of those could be suing individuals for medical debt, but it would be difficult to distinguish because a hospital that originally owned the debt wouldn’t be a party in the case.

Enforcement is typically sparked by a complaint. Both the federal and state governments receive complaints and can enforce the state’s debt collection law. Violators can face criminal and civil penalties, including fines and injunctions.

On the federal level, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau keeps a complaint database. The CFPB received more than 3,200 medical debt collection complaints from Texas since 2019. Those complaints identify over 300 different companies.

Nearly every one of those is a third-party debt collector, meaning they typically buy debt for a fraction of its initial value and then try to recoup as much of the original amount as possible.

Texas lawmaker to review state’s debt collection act

State legislators have been working to improve Texas’ Debt Collection Act. The last update came in 2019 through the “Fair Consumer Debt Collection Act” authored by Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth.

Collier’s bill tightened consumer protections by barring third-party debt collectors from trying to collect on debts that are beyond the statute of limitations. The bill also required debt collectors to explicitly disclose if a debt is beyond the statute of limitations.

Collier was spurred to file the bill after learning collections lawsuits were rising, she said.

The term “zombie debt” was coined because debt collectors were able to revive debt that was beyond the statute of limitations by contacting debtors, having them acknowledge the debt and agree to pay it.

But Collier’s bill applies to entities that have bought debt, or represent a debt buyer, not the original creditor, such as a hospital that has an unpaid medical bill.

Collier said she is open to improving the act in the future, and she would look at KXAN’s findings.

“I want people to get medical help. If they are facing a healthcare challenge, if they’re having a healthcare crisis or issue, I want them to go to the doctor. I want them to go to the hospital,” Collier said. “I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a high bill. I might get sued.’ That’s the last thing we want to see happen.”

Explore the full investigation:

“It is unacceptable,” Texas maternal mortality report delayed

The Texas Department of State Health Services announced this month the State’s Maternal Mortality report won’t be released this year. In fact, they revealed it won’t be released until after the next legislative session.

DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt said the agency wanted to better align the methodology in the report with other states. Staffing and budget issues at DSHS were also blamed for delaying the report.

Members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus called the data “integral” for legislators seeking to understand the scope of maternal mortality in Texas.

“It is unacceptable for this data to be delayed until next summer,” State Rep. Nicole Collier was quoted as saying in a statement released Thursday. Collier chairs the caucus. She noted that Texas has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country.

State Rep. Shawn Thierry (R-Houston), also a member of the caucus, pointed out that the issue is of particular importance to Black women.

“Black women are dying in childbirth at three times the rates of all other women,” Thierry said in a statement. “The delay by DSHS to publicly release the report from the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee is beyond troubling,” she added, pointing out the data was required by law to be released on September 1.

According to data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, from 2018 to 2020, Texas had a maternal mortality rate of 22.9 per 100,000 births. The national average for that time period was 20.4. No state had more deaths, but 14 states had a higher rate than Texas.

Our Mothers Erased investigation looked closer at previous problems with maternal mortality information. The reports looked at how the exact number of women who had recently given birth and died in Texas is not clear, due to mistakes with data collection.

State Rep. Collier emphasized the importance of having the data now, before the start of the legislative session.

“We need a better understanding of the underlying issues facing women during pregnancy in Texas to tackle this problem with urgency,” Collier said.