The state’s beleaguered cancer research agency edged out of the legislative doghouse Monday when budget conferees recommended restoring funding after months of controversy and an ongoing criminal investigation.
The recommendation calls for spending $594 million over two years, plus adding seven new employees for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, commonly known as CPRIT. The employees include an internal auditor, plus others to focus on overseeing grants once they are awarded.
The vote came as budget writers from the House and Senate got some of the easier decisions out of the way Monday. However, some big-ticket items, such as education, remain in limbo, as is the question of how to provide $2 billion for water projects. Even Gov. Rick Perry’s request for additional money for the Texas Emerging Technology Fund remains out of the budget proposal as the legislative session winds toward its May 27 conclusion.
CPRIT’s money is contingent on passage of Senate Bill 149, which attempts to strengthen the agency’s management structure with more checks and balances. The legislation has cleared the Senate and a slightly different version is coming to the House floor for a vote.
“I just think the need is too great not to pass,” said state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the conferees who voted to restore funding. “As critical as I’ve been, and others have been, I think we can legislatively fix it.”
CPRIT has been under the legislative microscope since it was disclosed that the agency mishandled three of its largest grants, totaling $56 million.
The agency’s executive leadership has been replaced and Travis County prosecutors are expected to begin presenting evidence and witnesses to a grand jury this month.
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is the author of Senate Bill 149 and a conferee who supported restoring funding.
“Senate Bill 149, when it passes and is signed by the governor, hopefully will restore the confidence lost because of some poor decisions,” Nelson said.
As for the prospect of the House passing the reforms, Nelson said, “I understand from House members, we’re good.”
In 2007, Texans authorized $3 billion in bonds over 10 years to fund cancer research, prevention and commercialization of new therapies. Spending $300 million a year put Texas in the forefront of fighting cancer.
Matt Winkler is an Austin biotech entrepreneur who founded Asurgen Inc., which creates cancer diagnostic products, and Mirna Therapeutics, which is testing a new liver cancer therapy on humans.
He said it’s important for Texas to regain the momentum on the cancer front.
“CPRIT had a very high visibility nationwide,” he said. “There were a number of companies that were thinking of moving operations here to take advantage of CPRIT.”
A coalition of cancer advocacy organizations that includes the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Livestrong Foundation, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Texas Medical Association praised lawmakers for working to fix CPRIT.
“With today’s decision by budget conferees to restore CPRIT funding and the progress of the CPRIT restructuring bill, our coalition is optimistic that a reformed CPRIT soon will be moving forward as a national leader to fight cancer and save lives,” said Gary Thompson, a member of the coalition.
Wayne Roberts, who became CPRIT’s interim executive director in December, said the agency has worked to regain the trust of state leaders.
“That trust can only be fully restored by responsible, accountable and transparent operations as we move forward,” Roberts said.
On Monday, budget writers from both chambers unanimously reconciled their differences on a long list of items, including a 12 percent pay raise for judges that has the effect of increasing the pension checks for lawmakers by the same rate.
The biggest sticking point remains the $2 billion needed for a water infrastructure fund. Budget negotiators all seem inclined to use some of the $12 billion rainy day fund but they can’t agree on how to get at that money.
The House has been leaning toward taking a direct route that would first require a vote to exceed the constitutional spending limit, which requires the approval of a majority of legislators. Then two-thirds of the members would approve tapping the rainy day fund.
The Senate wants to ask the voters to consider a constitutional amendment, an approach that does not require a politically treacherous vote on the spending cap.
The House, however, offered a glimmer of hope for resolution by getting the Senate’s $5.7 billion constitutional amendment package moving. It had been stuck in a legislative netherworld for a over two weeks but now can be heard by a committee.
Turner, speaking to reporters after Monday’s meeting, said he has found no support in the House for the Senate’s constitutional proposition.
“You can’t write a budget, so to speak, by always punting to the voters,” he said.
Despite the stalemate, Turner said budget writers talked over the weekend and made progress. He cited Monday’s vote as evidence.
“There are a lot of moving parts and I think today was a significant step forward,” he said. “But I will tell you we are a long way from home on this bill.”
However, Turner insisted he remains optimistic despite the hard decisions ahead: “I believe we can get there with the remaining days we have left.”