The Texas Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation that its sponsor said would provide an “iron-clad system of checks and balances” to address abuses at the state’s cancer agency.
Sen. Jane Nelson, who six years ago co-authored the creation of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, told her colleagues she remains livid at the agency’s mismanagement that prompted the resignation of its executive leadership, a critical audit and an ongoing criminal investigation.
“CPRIT isn’t the first agency to stumble and it won’t be the last,” Nelson said. “But we can’t let the actions of a few to erase the hopes of all Texans who are looking to this institute to save lives.”
In 2007, voters authorized borrowing $3 billion to fund cancer research, prevention and commercialization projects, but last year the agency was found to have mishandled at least three of its largest grants, totalling $56 million. One grant was awarded with none of the required scientific or business reviews.
Whether the agency’s actions are eventually judged criminal or incompetent, Nelson told senators that Senate Bill 149 “is going to make CPRIT totally transparent and lock tight so that kind of behavior cannot occur again.”
She included the CPRIT Foundation, which raised millions to supplement agency salaries, in her criticism. But her legislation includes a provision for a new foundation to continue supplementing salaries — with a requirement that the donor list be disclosed. The previous CPRIT Foundation said on Tuesday that it would shut down within 60 days.
The list of donors also would be checked to be sure that donors don’t also receive awards from the agency.
In the House version of the bill, its authors want to end the practice of supplementing CPRIT salaries with private donations.
The Legislature hasn’t yet made a final decision whether to re-fund CPRIT so it can resume full operations. State leaders have imposed a moratorium to prevent the agency from awarding new grants until the Legislature acts.
Also unaddressed is whether the members of CPRIT’s oversight committee will be replaced because they were in charge during the agency’s mismanagement. Several lawmakers have expressed a desire to start over with a new oversight committee.
Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus Jr. appoint the members of the CPRIT oversight committee. They have declined to ask for wholesale resignations, although the terms of some committee members are ending.
During Wednesday’s debate, Nelson admitted that she thought her 2007 legislation was air tight.
“I never would have imagined that the laws and rules we put in place would be disregarded and twisted like they were,” she said.
State auditors blamed CPRIT’s leadership more than its rules and review process for its problems.
“I can’t keep somebody from breaking the law,” Nelson said. But she added she can make the law tougher: “If anything more is done to besmirch this institution, it will be against the law.”
Among its reforms, Nelson’s bill would prohibit oversight committee officers from serving more than two years; involve more people in drawing up the slate of grant applications to be considered; prohibit CPRIT officials from serving on the boards of grant recipients or their foundations.
It also clarifies that grant recipients will provide matching funds for specific projects.
The bill also prohibits CPRIT oversight committee members from serving on the board of any future foundation that raises money to support the agency.
Some senators expressed frustration and regret before voting for Nelson’s bill.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, supported the creation of CPRIT in 2007.
“I very much regretted that vote because this board did nothing but betray the trust of the people of the state of Texas,” he said.
In 2007, Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, opposed borrowing $3 billion to fund CPRIT, preferring to put the agency through the appropriation process every two years.
Having lost that fight, Eltife supported Nelson’s attempts to reform the troubled agency, but he noted that a referendum on CPRIT might turn out differently today.
“I think if we went back to the voters today,” he said, “they might have a different opinion after what has taken place the last 24 months.”