Points worth noting: Pete Geren helps with CPRIT oversight, House advances statewide texting ban

Posted Friday, Apr. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Cancer-agency oversight

How can Texas' constitutionally created billion-dollar cancer-fighting agency restore faith in its ability to pursue its mission and responsibly steer public funds?

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus has taken an encouraging step by choosing former congressman and Army secretary Pete Geren to help get the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas back on track.

Straus this week named Geren, a Fort Worth lawyer, to the CPRIT Oversight Committee, the agency's 11-member governing board. The committee, which meets quarterly, is next scheduled to convene April 29 in Austin. (www.cprit.state.tx.us)

Geren, who was an assistant to U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and later represented Fort Worth in Congress for four terms, worked in the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration and into Barack Obama's first year in the presidency. Since 2011, Geren has been president of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, which gives grants to programs involving education, health, human services and cultural endeavors.

His brother, Charlie Geren, serves in the Texas House.

Pete Geren's leadership credentials are solid, and he has experience in dealing with large organizations and overseeing government operations. He has skills and experience that can be valuable in trying to right an agency that seems to have lost its way.

The agency came into being after voters in 2007 approved a state constitutional amendment to spend $3 billion in bond proceeds over 10 years on cancer research and prevention. Since 2010, CPRIT has awarded almost 500 grants, totaling $836 million. But standards got lax, leading to an upheaval. A state audit found that $56 million in grants weren't properly reviewed beforehand. Many of the scientists who had reviewed grants resigned, and there were claims that politics was trumping science in the decision-making.

A foundation that raised money to supplement agency executives' salaries also came under scrutiny for dubious decisions and now is planning to shut down.

The Texas Senate has approved SB149 and SB150, bills introduced by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, to make CPRIT more accountable by strengthening internal controls and guarding against conflicts of interest by ensuring that agency staff and oversight committee members don't have connections to grantees.

All the rules in the world don't work unless the individuals enforcing them understand their obligations to the public and are committed to accountability. Geren fits both criteria.

Texting ban advances

The Texas Department of Transportation already is doing the education part, flashing messages on electronic highway billboards such as, "Talk. Text. Crash."

But the Texas Legislature has taken an important step toward the emphasis part. The House this week passed House Bill 63, which would make texting while driving a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine up to $100 for a first offense, $200 for repeat violations.

The bill is called the Alex Brown Memorial Act after a high school senior who was texting with friends when she rolled her vehicle and was killed.

It's interesting to see how Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who introduced the bill, explains it as a vital safety tool.

During floor debate, he apologized for voting against mandatory seat belts years ago, noting that now as a grandfather he realizes their importance.

Many Texans resisted the requirement, but now the vast majority buckles up.

Some opponents of a statewide texting ban make the freedom argument. That's the objection of Gov. Rick Perry, who in 2011 vetoed a texting ban that the Legislature had approved.

But freedom to drive distractedly and endanger others on the road isn't a right that government ought to protect over the right to travel free from undue and avoidable hazards.

In 2012, there were 90,378 traffic crashes in Texas involving distracted driving, according to TxDOT. These wrecks resulted in 453 deaths and 18,468 serious injuries.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving to cut down on the perils of distracted drivers.

Perhaps more telling for the Legislature, at least 25 Texas cities, including Arlington, have local laws against texting while driving.

Craddick's bill moves to the Senate. Meanwhile, SB24, an identical measure by state Sen., Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is set for a Wednesday hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Perry hasn't said what he'd do if a texting ban comes to him again.

If it does, he should do the right thing and better protect travelers on Texas streets and roads.

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