AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender Texas minors brought dozens of supporters and opponents to the Capitol on Thursday, for a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing that lasted several hours and often impassioned remarks from both testifiers and lawmakers.

SB 14, authored by Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would prohibit physicians from giving “procedures and treatments for gender transitioning, gender reassignment” for children under the age of 18. The bill claims that such treatment includes puberty-inhibiting drugs, hormone therapy and surgical interventions.

Campbell, an emergency room physician, said her legislation is designed to protect vulnerable Texas children.

“Our children need counseling and love, not blades and drugs,” said Campbell during the hearing.

One parent, who has a transgender daughter, worries her child will not be able to continue necessary healthcare for her transition if SB 14 passes. She attended a rally of LGBTQ+ rights advocates at the Capitol Thursday.

“She will be impacted, she will be harmed. Her normal childhood will evaporate,” the mom said at at the rally.

But during the committee hearing, Campbell expressed concern about parents and doctors making life-altering decisions for their children, which those kids might regret later in life.

“Who’s taking care of the people if they decide to go backwards? Who is there for their detransitioning? Nobody,” she said.

The senator pointed to cases like that of Prisha Mosley, a woman from Michigan who has been traveling to different state legislatures to share her experience. When she was a teenager struggling with numerous mental health diagnoses, Mosley said she felt pressured to transition to the opposite gender. Now older, she is transitioning back to her gender assigned at birth.

Texas Medical Association board member Dr. John Carlo took a neutral position on the bill when testifying to the committee on behalf of the association, but told lawmakers cases like Mosley’s are extremely rare.

“Gender detransitioning is very, very rare. And we’ve seen it as low as 1%. And in Texas, when you talk to our Texas physicians that have been involved in gender dysphoria, and gender care — many of them, none of their patients that have had problems with detransitioning,” he said.

Carlo also expressed concerns about aspects that could impact practicing physicians, like requiring a revocation of a medical license for violation of the potential law. Overall, the doctor stressed the importance of handling this issue with caution.

“This is a vulnerable population of patients, which makes the relationship between the patient and the physician even more important,” he said. “As physicians, our goal is to treat our patients with the best medical judgment using the best medical evidence available. This includes evaluation of best practices in mental care and continued study and evaluation.”

Based on his testimony, lawmakers questioned whether or not Carlo is truly neutral on the bill. TMA had previously opposed banning gender-affirming care for children.

The State Affairs committee did not make any decisions on SB 14 yet.

Renters in ‘crisis’ after Texas Rent Relief shutdown

Just 52 hours after Texas opened applications for rent relief, the state was forced to shut down the portal due to extraordinary demand.

The Texas Rent Relief program saw an influx of more than 100,000 applications just one day after the system opened, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs said. Prior to this week, the most applications seen in a single day were fewer than 20,000.

The department had $96 million in available funding to distribute for rent assistance, but within one day, “requests for assistance far exceeded available funding.”

The portal is closed as of 11:59 a.m. on Thursday, March 16.

“It’s disappointing, but not surprising,” said Ben Martin, the research director at Texas Housers. “There’s an incredible, extraordinary need for assistance from renters in the state of Texas right now. We’ve seen evictions rising throughout 2022 and into 2023. Renters are really experiencing a crisis right now.”

TDHCA will prioritize renters facing eviction for assistance as they begin to distribute the limited funds.

Martin points to research showing only one affordable housing unit is available for every four extremely low-income renters.

“That’s a deficit of 75% of what we need,” he said. “For very low-income renters making about 50% of area median income, there’s less than one unit available for every two households looking for them.”

TDHCA said closing the portal will help staff review applications and distribute funds more quickly. In the meantime, the department refers those at risk of eviction to seek legal assistance. They provided Texas Law Help as a resource for free or low-cost representation.

Texans report long waits to get a driver license

There was no line outside the driver’s license mega center in Pflugerville when Kelsea Ledterman walked to the door at 8 a.m. But she was still nervous that her attempt to get a new ID might not work out in her favor.

“I tried to make an appointment online, but they were months out, like four or five months out,” Ledterman said.

The new mom, and new Texan, only has a few weeks before her California license expires. She was hoping she would get one of the very rare walk-in slots.

She didn’t.

“Unfortunately, they don’t have openings until September,” Ledterman said. “We will have to see if we can get to another surrounding county or something and find something a little sooner because that is a long time to wait to be able to drive your car.”

The problem looks different across the state. In 2020, DPS moved to an appointment-only system to curb long lines outside its offices.

On March 13, KXAN analyzed the earliest available appointments in some of the largest cities in Texas, including Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth.

In offices within Houston and Humble, customers trying to get a new Texas license could find appointments as early as the following week. But in other offices across the state, the earliest appointment for a new Texas license was as far as out as June, July, August and September.

DPS calculates the estimated amount of days people will have to wait before getting an appointment at any given driver’s license office. The data shows six of the seven longest wait times are in the KXAN viewing area.

The office with the longest estimated wait time is the Giddings driver’s license office at 161 days, meaning its next available appointment should be Aug. 23.

Pflugerville Mega Center is estimated as of March 15 to have an appointment wait time of 65 days, meaning its next available appointment would be May 19. But the booking site for appointments showed the next available dates were Aug. 3 and Sept. 7.

The appointment times also vary depending on what service people are trying to receive. Wait times are, generally, much shorter for those who must renew or replace their license in person. Data from DPS shows those trying to get a “New to Texas” driver’s license or who need to take a non-CDL driver test have the longest wait time for an appointment.

DPS officials also say people not showing up for their appointments is making the problem worse. Its no-show rate is nearly 30%, according to department data.

DPS would not agree to a sit-down interview between our investigators and its driver’s license director. But said in a statement its goal is to reduce booking times to 60 days or less.

Its current resources, officials with DPS said, are inadequate to meet the goal.

DPS Director Steve McCraw told the Senate Committee on Finance that driver license appointments were its “biggest problem,” asking for additional funding to hire more than 1,300 new workers at its driver license offices.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, took issue with providing more money after allocating funding back in 2019 to solve issues of wait time and customer service at Texas driver’s license offices.

Nichols even referenced a 2018 Sunset Advisory Commission report that suggested having the Texas DMV take on the responsibility of distributing driver licenses.

“A lot of states do this in the DMV office,” Sen. Nichols said. “This issue came before Sunset and Sunset basically suggested we need to take a look at this administrative function. Let you focus on safety, security, all those types of things and put this administrative function into one entity by itself — either joined with DMV or by itself.”

The long wait is not just an inconvenience. It’s also causing issues for those trying to get new jobs — and those who need to travel in their cars.

Allora Estrada needs a replacement ID after losing hers but was turned away and told the next available appointment wouldn’t be for another month.

“I won’t be able to get a job I had lined up,” Estrada said. “My finances are stacking up and it’s only me and my partner. We are both stressed and struggling. It’s not an easy thing to go through.”

Ledterman said she hopes lawmakers make the necessary changes to shorten appointment wait times.

“I don’t know about other people but how can you not drive for six months when you have to work and do stuff?” Ledterman asked.

TikTok crackdown: McCaul cites ‘threat’ as reason for backing proposed ban

Last Wednesday, the Biden administration demanded that Chinese-owned company TikTok sell its stakes in the social media app, or else it will be banned in the United States.

The demands come amid security concerns about the video-sharing app, specifically that the Chinese government could use the app to gain access to Americans’ personal data.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew insisted Thursday that America’s concerns are overblown and that forcing the app’s Chinese parent company, Bytedance, to sell it would not solve the U.S. and other governments’ national security concerns. Zi Chew said his company has its own plans to address privacy concerns.

“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said in a statement to The Hill, which is owned by Nexstar.

Despite this, several lawmakers on Capitol Hill are continuing to push legislation that would ban the app for Americans. This effort has been spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who chairs the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In an interview with Nexstar, McCaul said he would feel more comfortable if TikTok was owned by an American company.

“TikTok poses a national security threat,” McCaul said. “It’s a backdoor into your phone — I would say it’s a spy balloon into your phone — where they can capture data keystrokes, passwords, they can actually do algorithms to message in certain ways to use it as a propaganda tool.”

McCaul supports the efforts by President Joe Biden, saying that the administration needs to continually scrutinize social media apps.

“We give authority to the president to ban it if he deems it in the national security interest. I think that’s a smart way to do it,” he said. “The prior administration tried to ban it, but the courts found did not have the legal authority to do. So we give the president the legal authority if he deems international security best interest.”

McCaul said he expects there would be interest from U.S. companies to develop an alternative to TikTok.

“It’d be great to see an American version of this come out,” McCaul said. “There are some great innovators, I know, to have a TikTok-like app out there that could be as popular.”

Texas law enforcement agencies explain missing persons reporting gap

New data on missing persons in Texas reveals some discrepancies in what law enforcement agencies and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, are reporting.

A law that went into effect in September 2021 requires police across the state to enter missing persons cases into the system within 60 days of someone filing an official missing persons report.

In roughly the year after the law went into effect, NamUs data obtained by KXAN investigators shows 450 Texas cases were entered by professional users, which include police. By comparison, data obtained from the Department of Public Safety shows Texas police have received 6,466 missing persons cases that weren’t cleared within 60 days in that same time frame.

KXAN investigators reached out to the agencies with the most cases in the DPS data beyond the 60-day time frame and asked for an explanation. Some said cases might not be entered for various reasons, or their criteria for “missing persons” might be different from DPS data.

Here’s what the agencies with the most cases in the DPS data beyond 60 days had to say:

“The missing persons unit has had about a 97% entry rate. So, we do have room to improve, but we are consistently entering missing persons by that 60-day requirements,” said Lt. Christopher Zamora, manager of the Houston Police Department’s Missing Persons Unit.

He added the DPS data includes deceased and unidentified bodies and cases of interference with child custody. Other reasons why some cases may not be entered into NamUs could be because the person who filed the report or complained has become uncooperative, causing a delay in verifying information. 

After the law went into effect, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) says 450 professional users, which include police, entered Texas Cases from September 2021 to November 2022. DPS data obtained by KXAN investigators during the same time frame shows 6,466 missing persons cases were reported by Texas police to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a tool only for law enforcement, and not cleared within 60 days when the law requires Texas police to submit cases to NamUs. The agencies with the most cases beyond 60-days which should have been reported are Houston, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth Police Departments and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. (KXAN Animation/Aileen Hernandez)

“Other times there’s sensitive information. We may be investigating a missing person that is actually a homicide or murder investigation or it could be a kidnapping incident. So, entry into that system could sometimes compromise that investigation,” Zamora said. “Other reasons include cases being closed between or around the 60th day and then there’s a delay in supervisors approving the report and incident to be closed.”

KXAN investigators asked Zamora if one reporting system would help agencies enter and track cases instead of both NCIC and NamUs, and he responded that it would save time. 

“If there was a way to streamline it… I think that that would benefit not only the Houston Police Department but every agency in Texas,” he said. 

Dallas Police explained 368 entries were made into NamUs as required by law and the department is unaware of where the 437 number is coming from.

A spokesperson with Austin Police said the criteria for “missing persons” might be different from the DPS data.

“Our records for Missing Persons cases do not match up with the data you’ve received from DPS,” added the APD spokesperson. “We do not see that there was anywhere remotely close to 356 missing persons cases that were not cleared within 60 days and that should have been reported to NamUs.”

The Fort Worth Police Department explained the DPS data is not an accurate reflection of the number of individuals who have been missing for over 60 days.

“This is due to a backlog of supplements that need to be submitted to update the reports. Also, some of these cases were originally mistitled as missing persons when they were actually dealing with other issues,” the FWPD spokesperson said. “An example of this would be a family member/loved one who refused to return home, but their whereabouts were known.”

A spokesperson with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office said its agency enters information for missing persons within 60 days, in accordance with state requirements and it is handling more cases than just those listed for the county in the data. 

“The BCSO enters and clears information for missing persons for the BCSO, as well as for other local municipalities located within Bexar County. As a result of providing this service for other agencies, the number appears to be a reflection of a combination of our missing persons reported along with those from outside local agencies,” said the spokesperson. “Additionally, some of the entries may not be available to be viewed by the general public on the NamUs website/platform.”

BCSO explained to KXAN investigators that some of the other municipalities include police departments and the Constable’s Office.

KXAN asked DPS about the discrepancy in the data and criteria used by the agency to determine which cases were cleared within 60 days.

A spokesperson with DPS said there are six categories for missing persons that are entered into the NCIC, according to federal records:

  • Disability – a person missing with a proven mental or physical disability.
  • Endangered – a person missing whose safety may be in danger.
  • Involuntary – a person missing under circumstances indicating their disappearance may not have been voluntary.
  • Juvenile – a person missing and not declared emancipated by the laws of their state.
  • Catastrophe victim – a person missing after a catastrophe.
  • Other – a person not meeting any of the first five criteria who is missing and for whom there is a concern for their safety and the person is under 21 and emancipated under state laws.

Agencies are required to enter a missing person for NCIC no later than two hours after it receives the report or once a minimum of data elements are present for entry. Those data elements include name, date of birth, and several personal characteristics and identifying information.

The categories for missing persons, minimum data elements and a blank missing persons form are available here.

DPS said a “request to locate” case is “considered a separate process than the entry of a missing person,” but a “runaway” is a missing person and is included as a category in the NCIC entry form.

“We feel it is important to note, NCIC and NAMUS are different and distinct repositories of missing person information,” DPS said in a statement. DPS manages the Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications system, or TLETS. Information submitted to TLETS is available to all law enforcement in the state and nation, and missing persons reports submitted to TLETS meet the requirements for submission to the NCIC.

Local law enforcement agencies that enter information into TLETS are responsible for those entries and maintenance of that data. But, DPS performs quality control of that information – including missing persons entries – and it employs trainers and auditors who ensure agencies know of reporting policies and guidelines.

“By contrast, (DPS) does not have any oversight or purview into the NAMUS database.  Therefore, (DPS) cannot attest to the differences in the data between the two systems,” according to DPS.

Our team has asked NamUs for specifics about the professional users entering cases into the database, but have not gotten a response back yet.

“Once these law enforcement can see how it’s helping and maybe spread the word — not hear from us but hear from each other — like how many cases they’ve been able to solve by entering these people into NamUs — I think that’s going to help tremendously. This law is just the start,” Almendarez said.