AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Election Day was good for Texas Republicans. While the “red wave” anticipated by some did not happen, GOP candidates still swept all statewide offices, continuing a streak that has lasted more than two decades.
Gov. Greg Abbott led the Republican sweep. He and other state leaders are now watching what happens in Washington. The results could influence state policy moving forward.
Abbott said he could “ratchet back” his multi-billion dollar border initiative, known as Operation Lone Star, if Republicans take back the U.S. House and Senate after Tuesday’s midterm elections. He said he would also consider backing off the initiative to bus migrants from the border to cities like New York and Chicago.
In a one-on-one interview with KXAN’s Monica Madden on Monday, the Republican incumbent said Texas will “no longer have to be doing what we’re doing,” if the GOP wins back Congress and restores immigration policies that Abbott believes kept down illegal border crossings.
“If the Republicans do that, they fully fund border patrol, fully fund and restore ICE to the rightful position and duties on the border, return to building the border wall and reimburse the state of Texas for everything that we’ve had to spend to do the federal government’s job…that means Texas can ratchet back what we need to do to secure our own property,” Abbott said.
The issue of abortion brought voters of both parties to the polls. While other parts of the country saw voters approve measures to expand or preserve abortion rights, some Texas voters pushed in the opposite direction.
Voters in four Texas cities approved measures to create “sanctuary cities for the unborn.” This comes as polls show a majority of Texans support loosening the state’s near-total ban on abortion to allow exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
When asked if he would support legislation that would allow those exceptions, Abbott avoided answering directly. He focused instead on what he called a “focus on protecting the life of the mother.”
“There are some doctors who say that they don’t have the authority to treat things like ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages or infections or some other dangers that mothers are going through,” Abbott said, “And I believe that’s unacceptable. And so one thing that I’m going to be keenly focused on is both clarifying and making sure the state is doing everything we possibly can to protect the life of the mother.”
“My focus is on protecting both the life of the mother as well as the life of the baby,” he added.
The governor, who is considered to be a possible 2024 presidential contender, said he is committed to serving his full term if re-elected.
“I sure am,” said Abbott in response to the question of whether he is committed to serving through 2026. “My focus is on the great state of Texas.”
Lawmakers pledge fixes to Texas crime victim fund
Following a KXAN investigation into dysfunction in the state’s Crime Victims’ Compensation fund, Texas lawmakers say they are examining legislative fixes, including more money for the division overseeing the program.
The CVC fund is administered by the Office of Attorney General. It provided over $71 million to victims of violent crimes last fiscal year for expenses like medical bills, lost wages, funerals and therapy.
KXAN discovered the CVC division experienced serious staffing issues this year – losing more workers in the first nine months of 2022 than the previous two years combined. In September, 32% of the division’s positions were vacant, according to agency records. CVC workers told KXAN they are struggling, overburdened and stressed by a toxic work environment.
All these problems combined have slowed down payments from the fund. Victims of violent crimes – like sexual assault, drunk driving crashes, robbery and domestic abuse – have been left waiting for months, even years in some cases, to get repaid. Attrition has also hit the CVC division’s call center, increasing phone hold times and dropped calls this year.
The CVC division’s data shows the average number of days for victims to receive their first payment increased from 109 days last September to 149 last month, according to internal records obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act.
“It’s heartbreaking to see that the Attorney General’s Office is failing at deploying those funds and getting them to families in a timely manner,” State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, told KXAN.
Zwiener described the staffing shortages as “catastrophic” and said she would be looking at ways to appropriate “narrowly tailored funds just for that program.”
“One of the things we can do is try to inject some funding directly into staffing for that section of the agency,” she said, adding the challenge will be making sure the office keeps the funds within that specific program.
Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office would not agree to an interview with KXAN or answer specific questions about problems found in the investigation. The AG’s office provided a statement saying the agency “will continue to work around the clock to timely and faithfully serve the victims of crimes in Texas.”
At a campaign event in San Marcos last Friday, Zwiener highlighted KXAN’s investigations into the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. She told a crowd of about two dozen people the AG’s office “has been letting down victims of violent crime in Texas.”
As part of the state’s interim charges to the Legislature, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee was tasked with studying the availability of victim services in the state, including things like relocation assistance, which CVC provides.
The Jurisprudence Committee met Oct. 21 to discuss that charge. Victim advocates testified and voiced concerns about CVC payment delays and burdensome “red tape” in the application process and rules.
Kathryn Jacob, president and CEO of SafeHaven of Tarrant County, told lawmakers the CVC fund can be a great resource, but it has problems. Specific compensation limits haven’t kept up with inflation, and extended waits leave victims struggling, she said.
“With housing costs on the rise, paired with inflation, the amount allowed for rent and relocation can be too low to support a survivor’s needs,” Jacob said. “Process barriers can also create lags.”
Elizabeth Garcia, a victim assistance coordinator with the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, echoed Jacob’s testimony. The fund is critical, she said, but help is taking too long.
“We recently had a case where we had a family who was applying for reimbursement. The victim was a victim of a drunk driving incident and was deceased, and the application was submitted in May, and we just heard back about the approval for the funds,” said Garcia to lawmakers in October. “This was for funeral cost to reimburse the family.”
State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, chairs the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. She asked for examples of how the statute could be improved.
Kristen Huff, deputy chief for the Crime Victim Services Division, spoke on behalf of the AG’s office. She said the compensation application is “lengthy” and “there is always room to improve.”
“The paperwork obstacles, or what people define as red tape, really comes down to the requirement that these constitutionally dedicated funds are being used in a legally appropriate way,” Huff said.
As far as improvements, Huff said that the Legislature could expand the definition of a member of a household and the limits on payments for a parent of a lost child, among other changes.
For bereavement leave, an applicant can get “no more than $1,000, if you have lost a child, and that’s it,” Huff said.
“Wow,” Collier responded.
Huff said all the limits on compensation that have been set by administrative rules have been increased. However, limits set in statute – such as rent and relocation, and bereavement – have not been raised. The ceilings for rent and relocation benefits were passed in 1997 and haven’t changed since then, Huff said.
After the Jurisprudence Committee meeting “my staff began urgently looking into ways to improve the program to ensure that victims are more fairly compensated than currently allowed by statute,” said Collier in a statement.
KXAN’s “reporting reinforces the urgency within my own office, but it also demands that the Legislature closely examine the structural issues within the Office of the Attorney General that are harming everyday Texans when they are at their most vulnerable,” she added.
Another member of the House committee, State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said Texas voters need to hold elected officials accountable for these problems.
“The allegations of dysfunction at the Crime Victims’ Compensation fund are almost identical to examples of dysfunction I have recently heard about many state agencies in Texas: understaffed, low employee morale, and ultimately, Texans who should be benefiting from services go without,” said Hinojosa in a statement. “Everything is broken.”
KXAN sought comment from all nine members of bipartisan House committee, which includes five Republicans. Only Collier and Hinojosa responded.
This story is an update to KXAN’s “Held Up” investigation, which launched on November 2, 2022. Explore the original series, data interactives and resources for crime victims in Texas.
Congressman McCaul eyes new leadership position, voices support for Ukraine
One of the biggest storylines from the midterm election is the battle to control the U.S. House. Unofficial results show GOP candidates retaking the majority, which could bring new influence to some Texas Republicans serving on Capitol Hill.
Congressman Michael McCaul won re-election Tuesday in District 10, which stretches from Austin to the outskirts of Houston. McCaul is the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee – and he could end up leading that committee with the new GOP majority.
“I’m trying to be a common-sense conservative that wants to get good things done for the American people,” McCaul said during an interview Wednesday with KXAN.
McCaul said he supports providing more financial assistance and weapons to Ukraine, especially after Russia’s military withdrawal from the only Ukrainian regional capital it captured.
“They’re on the run, by the way. Their heels are knocked back,” said McCaul about Russia. “They’re losing this fight, and now’s the time to really support [Ukraine] — not to pull out and cut and run.”
He also explained what he thinks it will take to bridge divides within his own party about future support for Ukraine.
“It’s going to be an educational process,” McCaul said. “I think I say that we’re not going to write a blank check. We are going to have oversight and accountability. We are going to ask our NATO allies to step up to the plate, and, you know, bear the cost in the burden of this effort.”
“If we don’t do this now… we risk, then having to put American troops in the region, and that’s the last thing we want to do,” McCaul added.
He said he intends to “strongly support” current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to become House Speaker since it appears the GOP will win a narrow majority in the lower chamber. McCaul said he also hopes President Joe Biden will reach out to Republicans on issues ranging from the economy and energy to the border and national security issues.
“I hope we have a president who will work with us, a Republican Congress, not unlike Bill Clinton,” McCaul said. “Bill Clinton had a choice: am I going to work with a Republican Congress or not? If I were advising the president for a day, I’d say take a page out of Bill Clinton’s playbook because that’s what’s going to be best for the American people.”
Report: Texas Vet Board still struggling to fix database problems
Months after a KXAN investigation into problems at the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, a new legislative report reveals the agency is still struggling to manage its data on animal doctors in the state.
The report found TBVME failed to implement previous recommendations by the Sunset Advisory Commission — a group of lawmakers and members of the public that evaluates the function and performance of state agencies. Sunset has reviewed this agency three times over the last six years.
“Without addressing basic, but important, state agency operations like contracting and data management, the board will continue to struggle to meet its important mission of establishing and enforcing policies to ensure the best quality of veterinary services and equine dental care for the animals of Texas,” the report stated.
After staff presented its report to lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday, Commission chair Sen. Charles Schwertner called the continued problems “unacceptable.”
Schwertner sat on the Sunset Advisory Commission in 2017 when lawmakers first directed TBVME to fix the way it tracks licensing and enforcement information — instead of relying on Excel spreadsheets to manage the status of complaints and disciplinary cases. In 2021, Sunset staff noted database problems persisted.
In the spring of 2022, KXAN investigators found dozens of disciplinary documents still missing from the agency’s public licensee look-up website, which could prevent pet owners from seeing a veterinarian’s disciplinary history.
At the time, an attorney for the agency said many records were having to be uploaded manually, during a data migration. After the investigation aired, one of the agency’s leaders said he would look into the missing records and eventually said he got the issue “rectified.”
Sunset staff noted in its most recent report since 2017, the agency spent more than $180,000 trying to purchase a database system from different vendors but never received a final product.
The report explained TBVME had to cancel one contract after the main subcontractor working on the database went out of business. It entered into another contract with a different company in 2020, but current TBVME staff were not able to find that contract or other documents related to the work with that company.
Sunset staff called it “concerning” and went on to say the confusion “frustrates efforts to hold the agency accountable for the expenditures of public funds and raises questions of misuse.”
Rep. Justin Holland serves as the Sunset Advisory Commission Vice Chair and told KXAN the agency’s inability to produce a contract was a “red flag.”
“We need to get to the bottom of making sure that every single state agency runs as efficiently and effectively — ethically and morally — the people that are in those positions, on those boards — that they can go back to the general public and say, ‘this board regulates licensees and complaints, and we are very confident in our ability to do so.’ I am not very confident in the ability of this Veterinary Board to do so,” he said.
According to the Sunset report, the second contract went missing after TBVME’s executive staff resigned in April.
In September, Brittany Sharkey was named the new, permanent executive director of the agency. She previously served as general counsel for TBVME from 2019 to 2021.
During an October budget hearing at the Capitol, Sharkey testified about the new administration at the agency — noting funding for a new database was the agency’s “highest priority.”
According to its Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR), the agency has been “hindered by a lack of adequate resources to meet its core mission for the last several years,” which is why it is asking for more funding for a new database — $143,110 in one-time costs and $276,120 in ongoing expenses.
At the October meeting, Sharkey testified her staff is currently using a combination of some operational parts of a database and Excel spreadsheets to track information.
“This makes basic data reporting a complex task. Hours are spent pulling together case information for our board meetings, and it hinders the accuracy with which we can provide data to the public,” she said.
During Thursday’s Sunset hearing, Schwertner told the other members of the commission KXAN’s investigation revealed concerns about “the inability, really, to find just basic information about licensees on the website: basic complaints, the thoroughness of those complaints,” he said.
Lawmakers then questioned Sharkey and Keith Pardue, who recently became the Board Chair after serving on the board for several years, about how they planned to address the database problems and why they were not aware sooner.
“I do understand the mission of this agency to keep a high standard of veterinary care in the state of Texas. I am doing everything I know to do to keep that standard high and correct these issues,” Pardue said.
In an interview after the hearing, Schwertner told KXAN he is still not confident the agency is headed in the right direction.
“I need to see proof. I need to see action. I need to see them diligently working for the people of Texas,” he said. “People should take great confidence when they take their animal into a veterinarian not only has a license, but that that license has been vetted and data about that licensee — whether or not they have been investigated, if there are complaints about that licensee — that data can be easily found on a website, for instance, and then utilize their judgment on whether they want to take their animal and entrust their animal to that veterinarian.”
During the hearing, several lawmakers also noted how these data issues not only affect veterinarians’ work and the health of animals but also could impact people’s safety, due to the access these licensees have to powerful prescription drugs.
The Sunset report compiled for Thursday’s hearing was specifically focused on problems with the database. However, staff noted several other issues in the report: from long complaint resolution times to a drop in inspections.
The report cited numbers from KXAN’s investigation, showing the agency took an average of 464 days to resolve a complaint in fiscal year 2021 — up from 221 days in fiscal year 2015. The report also noted a “steep decline” in how many inspections the agency conducted in 2021 – 56, down from closer to 500 in previous years.
Schwertner told KXAN, “Now, with work such as yours, and obviously the continued issues and data we are getting from the Sunset Commission, it is very evident that this agency needs further scrubbing, further review to make sure this agency is doing its job. Cause it is not doing its job at the current time.”
He put forth a motion to direct Sunset staff to evaluate other issues outside this limited scope review of the database. They are expected to report back to the commission in January 2023.
Jodi Long, DVM, who serves as the President-Elect of the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, said the Sunset hearing revealed “an agency that is stretched too thinly to accomplish its mission,” but they planned to work with lawmakers and the new board leadership on finding ways to improve.
She told KXAN in a statement, “The public cannot have confidence that they are seeing the whole picture when they look at a veterinarian’s record. Meanwhile, veterinarians are waiting more than 500 days for complaints against them to be resolved.”
“Every vet I talk to has a problem with this board, this agency,” Holland said. “This can’t keep coming up every two years, and we are going to have to do something about it this session.”