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Texas on Track to Restore Cancer Research Funding

The House tentatively approved a bill to reform the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, bringing the state one step closer to restoring financing for the beleaguered agency.

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The Legislature is on track to restore financing for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. 

In an effort to restore public trust in the beleaguered agency, budget negotiators made the agency’s financing for 2014-15 biennium — $595 million — contingent upon the passage of Senate Bill 149, which the House tentatively approved on Friday.

The measure “strengthens governance of [CPRIT] to ensure that it is operating according to our legislative intent and the people of Texas,” said state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, the House sponsor of the bill. 

SB 149, authored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would add more checks and balances to the agency’s processes to ensure that grants receive adequate peer review. It would restructure CPRIT’s leadership, clarify conflict of interest rules and strengthen the oversight of advanced payments, matching funds and honorarium for scientific peer reviewers.

“It’s a step in the right direction, and we’re going to keep the institute accountable, because it's doing great things,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio. The House adopted three amendments by Martinez Fischer that would require individuals seeking to serve on the CPRIT oversight committee to report political contributions, would define reporting requirements for conflicts of interest and would clarify the scope of conflicts of interest outlined in the bill.

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

Lawmakers put CPRIT’s grant processes under a microscope this legislative session after 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. 

The version of SB 149 approved by the House would also require a nonprofit created to supplement the salaries of CPRIT’s executive director and chief scientific officer to be subject to state open record laws. The CPRIT Foundation, which was set up to supplement CPRIT salaries, recently changed its name to the Texas Cancer Coalition and is winding down its operations. Lawmakers criticized the nonprofit at an April House committee hearing for rebranding itself and cutting ties with the beleaguered institute amid the Legislature’s efforts to reform it.

The Senate approved a different version of SB 149 in April. If the House approves SB 149 on third reading by Tuesday, representatives from both chambers will conference to reach a final agreement on the language of the bill before it is sent to the governor.

"The transgressions that have occurred at CPRIT are inexcusable and will never be tolerated again," Nelson said in a statement. "Setting up this institute is one of the most important things the Legislature has ever done, and I am looking forward to its bright future."

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