Rules Hurt Family Violence Programs, Nelson Says

State regulations are unnecessarily holding up funds for shelters and programs that help victims of family violence, state Sen. Jane Nelson says. She wants to loosen the rules, even as she leads the charge to tighten other state contracting procedures.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, during a Health and Human Services committee hearing on Feb. 19, 2013.

Too much red tape is delaying funding for shelters and programs that help victims of family violence in Texas, threatening to disrupt the services they offer, according to one state senator who wants to loosen state law to get money approved more quickly.

Ironically, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is among Texas lawmakers leading the charge to tighten up state contracting oversight amid a wave of scandals involving various state agencies.

But Nelson's Senate Bill 59 would undo a 2013 rule requiring the state's Family Violence Program to vet its contracts through the much larger Health and Human Services Commission. Instead, the program — in consultation with the Texas Council on Family Violence — would manage its own contracts, and would not require competitive bidding.

"These are nonprofit entities that operate on shoestring budgets," Nelson said in a statement. "Delayed funding can have a devastating impact on their ability to care for victims, including children."

The Texas Council on Family Violence is a statewide nonprofit made up of more than 100 family violence programs. It acts as an intermediary between the state and service providers, but does not receive funds directly. Instead, it advises the state on where money is best spent.

Last year, the Family Violence Program received $26.6 million in state and federal funds and contracted with 68 shelters, 10 nonresidential centers and 16 special projects to help 84,430 clients. That's only a fraction of the need, TCFV says. It estimates that more than 5 million women in Texas have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime.

The council has criticized the red tape that it says began delaying funds after the program was placed under more stringent procurement rules in 2013. In testimony before the Sunset Commission last year, they said the relatively small program had been wedged into a "one-size fits all" process.

"We had worked with HHSC for three or four years on this and just realized we needed a legislative fix," said Aaron Setliff, the council's public policy director. 

“Having to go through this new procurement process, there were so many hoops to jump through,” said Shannon Trest, the executive director of the Women's Center in Longview, who said that her agency waited nine months for requested funds. “That puts a strain on staff, and especially in a small agency, it keeps them from offering service to victims.”

Nelson's bill also eliminates a competitive bidding requirement for family violence centers seeking a contract with the state. Andrew Wheat, research director for the money-in-politics group Texans for Public Justice, questioned the need for the exemption.

“These funds move through HHSC, which has a long history of being oblivious to – or indulgent of – crony contracting. This does not inspire confidence,” said Wheat. “I don't see anything in there that clarifies why this needs to be excluded from competitive bidding.”

Nelson said the program's contracts will still be governed by strict, competitive guidelines.

Gloria Terry, the CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence, said that internal contracting rules are sufficiently competitive. "There are a number of requirements laid out ... that are incredibly competitive,” she said. “It is a lengthy, secure process to be able to become a provider of services. This does not eliminate the competitive process whatsoever.”

Last week, the bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, and appears headed for the Senate's local and uncontested calendar.