Budget Negotiators Tentatively Restore CPRIT Funds

If the state Legislature approves reforms to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the embattled agency should have its financing restored, budget negotiators decided on Monday.

“I believe it is the right decision pending appropriate reforms in the agency,” state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton and one of the budget conferees, said in a text message.

House and Senate budget conferees allotted nearly $595 million in bonds to finance the cancer agency in the 2014-15 biennium, pending the passage of Senate Bill 149, reform legislation authored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who is also one of the conferees.

"I was very disappointed in the poor decision making and mistakes that came to light this session, but believe we must keep up our fight against cancer," Nelson said in a statement. She added that SB 149 "will ensure CPRIT operates in a transparent and accountable way in the future and that these issues will be solved."

SB 149 would add more checks and balances to the agency’s processes to ensure grants receive adequate peer review, restructure CPRIT’s leadership, clarify conflict of interest rules, and strengthen the oversight of advanced payments, matching funds and honorarium for scientific peer reviewers.

The Senate approved SB 149 in April. A House panel approved a committee substitute of the bill on Thursday. If the House approves the legislation, the Senate and House will have to conference and negotiate the final language of the bill.

“We have painstakingly gone over conflict of interest in this bill,” state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland and the sponsor of SB 149, said while introducing the bill to the House panel. He said “there was never anybody feathering their nest” with CPRIT financing, but added that the problems at the agency were attributable to an “overzealousness” by leadership to distribute financing quickly.

“Of course, we still have to pass the bill, but I think that we’re in good shape,” Keffer said on Monday, adding that he worked with Nelson on the changes to the committee substitute.   

The substitute offered by Keffer would also eliminate the nonprofit that supplements the salaries of CPRIT’s executive director and chief scientific officer. The CPRIT Foundation recently changed its name to the Texas Cancer Coalition and is winding down its operations. Lawmakers criticized the nonprofit at an April House hearing for rebranding itself and cutting ties with the beleaguered institute amid the Legislature’s efforts to reform it.

In 2007, Texas voters approved the use of $3 billion in bonds, which must be repaid with interest, to create CPRIT and finance cancer research, development of cancer treatments and cancer prevention programs for 10 years.

Lawmakers have been examining CPRIT’s grant processes under the microscope this legislative session. A state audit revealed in January that three grants worth $56 million were approved without proper peer review. And the Travis County district attorney’s office is conducting a criminal investigation of three former CPRIT employees. 

"CPRIT has worked hard to regain considerable credibility with the Legislature and state leadership over the last five months
and will continue to do so," Wayne Roberts, interim executive director of CPRIT said in a statement. "Senate Bill 149 is the critical next step in restoring the trust that was shaken in 2012. That trust can only be fully restored by responsible, accountable, and transparent operations as we move forward."

Aman Batheja contributed reporting to this story.

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