The Texas Senate unanimously approved two bills Wednesday to reform the beleaguered Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas amid continuing controversy over grant awards.
“It establishes an ironclad system of checks and balances that will make it impossible for the institute to operate without 100 percent transparency and accountability,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who authored Senate Bills 149 and 150 to reform CPRIT.
Both measures will now go to the House. On Thursday, the House will debate the 2014-15 budget proposal approved by the Senate. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said legislators would consider adding money to the budget to finance CPRIT when the two chambers hold a conference committee on the budget bill.
The institute has been embroiled in controversy after a state audit revealed that three grants — totaling $56 million — were approved without proper peer review. The Travis County district attorney’s office is conducting an investigation to determine whether the actions of three former CPRIT employees were criminal. And state leaders called for a moratorium on CPRIT grants in December, which left on hold a combined $183 million in approved grants.
Senate Bill 149 would restructure CPRIT’s leadership, establish a compliance program to ensure grants are not approved without peer review, clarify that CPRIT employees are prohibited from having professional relationships with grantees, and strengthen the oversight of advanced payments, matching funds and honorarium. It would also remove the state comptroller and attorney general from the CPRIT oversight committee, which gives final approval on the institute’s decision to issue grants.
"We are one more step in the right direction, and we look forward to continuing to work with legislators in both houses to build on this positive movement forward," Wayne Roberts, the interim executive director of CPRIT, said in a statement following the passage of the bill.
Senate Bill 149 also sets up new rules regarding any nonprofit that supplements the salaries of the executive director and chief scientist at CPRIT to require such a nonprofit to publicly disclose its donors and ensure that donors to such a nonprofit do not receive CPRIT grants.
Given that the former CPRIT Foundation, the nonprofit that has supplemented the salaries of CPRIT officials since 2009, is shutting down, the Senate approved an amendment by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, that would require the institute to report the names of future donors to the institute on its website.
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.
“If it were my preference, we would totally eliminate CPRIT after this debacle,” said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, emphasizing that he did not support financing CPRIT with bonds that must be repaid with interest when the Legislature advanced a constitutional amendment in 2007 to create the institute. Although he voted to reform the institute, Eltife said, “I think if we went back to the voters today, they might have a different opinion after what’s taken place over the last 24 months.”
Senate Bill 150 would allow royalties, licensing fees or other income collected by CPRIT to be used to pay for debt service on CPRIT bonds, and it prohibits the agency from using bond proceeds to pay debt service on the bonds. Currently, the money CPRIT collects can only be used to fund additional grants, purchase laboratory facilities or operate the agency. Nelson said this bill would push CPRIT to become self-sufficient.
Despite an ongoing moratorium, state leaders gave CPRIT permission to pursue contracts for 25 grants that were approved before the moratorium took effect to bring additional cancer researchers to Texas. They added that the moratorium on new grants should not be lifted until the agency is further reformed.
Since 2010, CPRIT has awarded nearly 500 grants totaling $836 million. With that financing, Texas’ higher-education institutions have recruited 44 prominent cancer researchers to the state, and 184,000 Texans have been screened for cancer — including 38,000 people who had never received cancer screenings before, according to the institute’s figures.