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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Does Texas have enough poll workers ahead of Election Day in November? The short answer is sort of.

“The job is hard, the hours are long and the responsibilities are many,” Hays County Elections Administrator Jennifer Doinoff said.

That’s why Hays County officials voted Tuesday to increase pay for its poll workers. Presiding judges, election techs, early voting ballot board and central count workers will make $18 per hour. Early voting and Election Day clerks will now be paid $16 per hour. 

“I do think that we do need to keep up with our neighboring counties so that we can continue to have poll worker interest,” Doinoff said.

According to Sam Taylor with the Secretary of State’s Office, Texas is in a significantly better spot now than it was during the primary election. He said there’s been more time for parties to submit their list of poll workers to their counties.

“[Counties could need] anywhere from under 100 [poll workers] in a very small county to up to 3,000,” Taylor said.

Taylor said some counties are still working to get the staff they need with less than two weeks until early voting begins.

“Dallas County is working to recruit more poll workers,” Taylor said. “I think they are on track to get the amount that they need. However, in Bexar County… a judge recently ordered that they expand the number of polling locations. So that’s something where the county is going to have to adjust.”

Election workers in some other places like Gillespie County have quit amid threats and harassment after the 2020 election.

This comes as having an adequate number of election workers — before people cast their ballots — may be more important now than ever. Taylor said there are 2 million more registered voters compared to 2018.

“There’s been an exponential increase in voter turnout each election,” Taylor said. “Just a 20% increase between 2014 and 2018. I think that shows you the power of what the 2016 election did to the electorate, how it got a lot more people engaged, a lot more interested in politics in the voting process.”

Hays County said it expects it’ll have plenty of hands on deck, making for a smooth election.

“We appreciate them, and we just look forward to working with them,” Doinoff said.

How dark money flows into Texas political advertising

A mysterious new group called Coulda Been Worse, LLC released its latest television advertisement, targeting top Texas Republican leaders and blaming them for problems following the 2021 winter storm.

The group first started making headlines last month when it released its first ad blaming “three men,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, for a myriad of issues facing the state.

We reached out to Abbott’s Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, and a spokesperson said, “The Beto for Texas campaign does not have a relationship with Coulda Been Worse LLC nor does this campaign know who is behind it.”

Austin election law attorney Roger Borgelt said it’s not uncommon for outside groups to work to influence elections, but he explained there are different reporting and disclosure rules depending on the type of organization running the ad or spending the money.  

In campaign advertising, Borgelt said it’s important to pay attention to certain words used to differentiate between express campaign advertising and what are called “issues” ads.

“We think, well, ‘That must be political advertising,’ because it’s putting out either very positive or very negative damaging information about a candidate. But if they don’t actually say ‘support’ or ‘oppose,’ then it actually doesn’t trigger the political advertising regulations or disclosures,” he said.

A 1976 Supreme Court opinion, Buckley v. Valeo, established that the government can limit contributions to political campaigns but cannot place limits on campaign expenditures or independent expenditures by outside groups supporting a campaign, because that money is considered an extension of the donors’ rights to free speech, protected under the First Amendment.

Words such as “vote for,” “vote against,” “elect,” or “defeat” are often referred to as “magic words” under Buckley, identifying whether an ad is considered an electioneering ad—triggering limits and reporting requirements under elections law—or simply an issue ad.

Regardless of the ad classification, media outlets such as television and radio submit a “political file” to the Federal Communications Commission, documenting various ads placed during election cycles.

KXAN reviewed its advertising paperwork filed with the FCC for Coulda Been Worse, LLC. It shows the group is registered in Virginia and lists someone named Michael Waters as the primary contact, using a phone number with a Virginia area code. KXAN investigators reached out and left a voicemail, but have yet to hear back.

There are laws at the federal and state level for how campaign spending has to be reported. However, most voters are familiar with the term “dark money”—spent by nearly-anonymous donors through certain types of organizations to influence elections. 

Political action committees, or PACs, have to register with the Texas Ethics or Federal Election Commissions. PACs are also subject to certain reporting requirements and there are limits to how much money they can donate directly to a candidate’s campaign. On the other hand, Super PACs cannot donate directly to campaigns, so they don’t have any limits on the amount of money they can raise.

Super PACs are supposed to be subject to disclosure and reporting requirements, too, but there are ways to hide donors’ identities. For example, donations attributed to limited liability corporations or shell companies can inherently mask individual donors’ names.

Additionally, non-profits classified as 501(c)s are bound by the same election laws. Therefore, they are not required to disclose their donors to the public and can raise unlimited amounts of money.

“There was some sound reasoning behind that,” Borgelt said, pointing to a 1958 Supreme Court decision called NAACP v. Alabama. He explained the ruling protected the private identities of donors to the NAACP during the Civil Rights movement and allowed the “free association” of private people to groups such as these.

Open Secrets, a group that tracks election finances, calls 501(c)(4) groups the most common type of “dark money” group. These social welfare organizations, including the National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood, are allowed to engage in political activity, but it is not supposed to be their “primary purpose.”

It says 501(c)(5) groups, such as labor unions, and 501(c)(6) organizations, such as trade associations and chambers of commerce, are bound by the same limit.

Meanwhile, 501(c)(3) groups, such as charitable or religious organizations, are not supposed to engage in political activities.

Open Secrets estimates more than $26 million has already been spent in 2022 by outside groups who do not disclose their donors. It estimates roughly $1 billion has been spent by “dark money” groups since 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled to allow corporations and other special interest groups to spend unlimited sums to support or oppose political candidates. Under Citizens United v. FEC, spending was classified as an extension of protected free speech.

Borgelt explained that under the law, “That is their right, under the First Amendment, to speak in that way, and to amplify their speech with that amount of money if they have the wherewithal to do that and choose to do that.”

Two months before the November election in Texas, U.S. Senate Republicans voted to block the consideration of a bill, requiring these kinds of organizations to disclose the identities of donors who give $10,000 or more during an election cycle. In a 49-49 vote, every Republican present voted against the measure and every Democrat voted for it.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said the bill would have given “unelected federal bureaucrats vastly more power over private citizens’ First Amendment rights and political activism.”

Texas lawmakers plan medical billing fix next session after our investigation

When Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, signed onto Senate Bill 2122 in Texas’ last legislative session in 2021, he said he thought it was a “very common sense” and “simple” way to protect patients and their finances.

“Before a health care provider pursues any debt collection against a patient,” the bill read, “the provider shall issue to the patient a written itemized bill of charges for all health care services and supplies.”

Though the bill — filed by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who was unavailable for comment — passed the Senate, it failed to progress through the House Public Health Committee late in the session and ultimately never became law.

Since then, KXAN investigators discovered hundreds of medical debt lawsuits piling up in Central Texas courts. A common complaint the patients sued shared with our team was being unable to obtain an itemized invoice from their hospital to better understand why they were being charged specific amounts.

After learning what we’d discovered, Bettencourt said lawmakers should reconsider the legislation to prevent that problem during the next legislative session in January.

“Quite frankly, the only hook in it is: you didn’t send an itemized bill, you can’t collect,” he said. “I think people need to know what their billing is. And this isn’t a stringent requirement, because to generate the bill you have to have an itemized list anyway.”

Amanda Korth, a Pflugerville mother of two young girls, said she experienced this issue after visiting an area hospital, which we are not naming because collecting outstanding debt from patients through the courts is legal.

After battling breast cancer in 2018 and undergoing a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, Korth had reconstructive surgery at that hospital. Following the procedure, she said she tried unsuccessfully to obtain an itemized invoice before paying what she owed the hospital.

		Amanda Korth looks through an itemized invoice from a Central Texas hospital - something she says she was only able to obtain from the hospital’s attorney after being sued and paying the full amount she owed. (KXAN Photo/Josh Hinkle)

Amanda Korth looks through an itemized invoice from a Central Texas hospital – something she says she was only able to obtain from the hospital’s attorney after being sued and paying the full amount she owed. (KXAN Photo/Josh Hinkle)

“The reason I hadn’t paid the bill right away is I needed an itemized statement,” she explained. “I had a secondary insurance company that would reimburse me for the out-of-pocket … but they needed an itemized statement and getting that … was next to impossible.”

Korth said she even filled out a release form to obtain her records but had no luck. The hospital would not speak with KXAN about specific patients, citing medical privacy laws.

I tried calling,” Korth said. “But I never could get anybody who could confirm that they had the paperwork they needed to send me an itemized statement.”

After she didn’t pay, Korth said the bill fell off her radar. Then, she was sued in January 2021 — two years after her surgery — for $1,021 plus $750 in attorney fees. 

“It was a sense of panic at first because you don’t know…what this is going to do to your credit,” she said. “You don’t know what this is going to do…basically to your financial security.”

Korth said she finally obtained an itemized invoice from the hospital’s attorney after being sued. The case against her was eventually dropped once she paid the full amount.

The Patient Choice Coalition, a Texas and Oklahoma lobbying organization that works to bring providers and patients together, has heard stories like Korth’s.

“A lot of our independent and physician-owned facilities have been providing itemized lists for healthcare charges for a long time,” said Daniel Chepkauskas, legislative director with the coalition. “What we find is maybe more of our larger corporate entities…they have been either reluctant or slow to offer these itemized lists to patients.”

Chapkauskas testified last session in support of SB 2122 during a public hearing for the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce. He described the healthcare industry to KXAN investigators as “one of the most bizarre sectors of our economy in the sense that it doesn’t follow the same standards.”

“If we’re thinking of…purchasing a car or buying TVs, we know what the costs are for those goods and services prior to purchasing them,” Chapkauskas said. “But in health care, a lot of things are backwards. We don’t know exactly what our health care is going to cost until after the fact. And that shouldn’t be the case.”

The bill received ample support, but the Texas Hospital Association (THA) had concerns. The group opposed the legislation, saying hospitals are already required by law to provide itemized statements — if requested — but doing so with every bill would be costly.

“The estimated cost of compliance for one hospital system is between $3-4 million, without the plain language explanations, built-in per year,” explained Cameron Duncan, THA’s associate general counsel told lawmakers during the hearing.

A spokesperson told KXAN that THA offered several amendments, including language to notify patients they could request an itemized bill instead of medical providers automatically making it available. THA said its suggestions were not accepted by the bill’s author, and that’s why THA opposed the bill.

“We do want to be transparent with patients and help them understand the cost of their medical bills,” said Duncan during the hearing. “For the patients who want this type of information, we recommend including in the normal billing statement a very clear statement that patients have the right to — at no cost — request an itemized billing statement.”

In addition to the invoice issue, Texas lawmakers could consider another legislative measure following KXAN’s investigation. Earlier this year, Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, spoke with our team about concerns from families since she’s previously worked to improve the state’s Debt Collection Act.

		Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, authored Texas’ Fair Consumer Debt Collection Act in 2019 which tightened protections. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, authored Texas’ Fair Consumer Debt Collection Act in 2019 which tightened protections. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

She said she would look into whether the state’s complaint system adequately protects people involved in medical debt lawsuits. After its initial investigation, KXAN shared data and analysis with her office and is awaiting an answer on what she plans to do next.

“If this is an issue that’s going to give a person pause before they take care of their health, then yes — we need to take action,” Collier previously told KXAN.

Bettencourt said he would re-file the itemized invoice bill, if Hughes — the bill’s original author — does not.

“This is not rocket science,” he said. “Put the line item that you use to generate…on the bill and send it to the consumer, and then everybody has full disclosure.”

The “Medical Debt Lawsuits” project launched on Sept. 12, 2022, produced by Catalyst – a specialty unit within the KXAN investigative team focused on “digital-first” storytelling that aims to make a positive change in society. The unit takes a multi-platform, innovative approach to each project and rotates among various investigators. Investigative Photojournalist Richie Bowes, Graphic Artist Aileen Hernandez, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this update. 

Down-ballot races and how to be ready to vote in them

Maybe it’s happened to you. It’s election day and you get to the voting machine, confident and prepared to cast your ballot in the big races like governor or mayor — But then you get to the down-ballot races (think school board trustees, county clerks, judicial seats), and suddenly, you’re not so sure who gets your vote.

We recently visited the University of Texas at Austin to learn how we can all be a little better informed when it comes to those smaller races that often have big implications on our daily lives.

“Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attention paid to school [board] policies on things like curriculum, library books, books in the classroom,” said James Henson, director of UT’s Texas Politics Project. “These are the kinds of things that school boards have authority over.”

“[County] clerk positions are also really important and increasingly so,” he continued. “They are the heart of the electoral process. These are people who oversee both voter registration at the local level, maintain the voter rolls and then actually organize and operate the elections.”

Henson offered the following suggestions to find info on down-ballot candidates:

  • Do a simple internet search for candidate websites, social media pages and articles — just make sure you’re linking to reputable sites.
  • Check with civic organizations like the League of Women Voters and other local groups that live for this kind of thing and offer voting guides.
  • Ask friends and family. Chances are, you already know somebody who’s plugged into politics and can probably help you out.

For those looking to take their research game to the next level, looking up campaign finance records to see who’s funding these candidates isn’t as hard as you might think.

  • For statewide races, the Texas Ethics Commission website has an easy-to-use search feature
  • City and county campaign filings will be on city and county websites.
  • School board filings are often available on district websites.
  • Pro-tip: Make sure you’re searching for a candidate’s legal name, not a nickname (Peter rather than Pete; Elizabeth rather than Liz).

We also chatted with Amber Mills, an advocacy organizer for the nonprofit MOVE Texas. She clued us into something interesting happening on social media: candidates taking to TikTok as a cost-effective way to reach younger voters.

“There is a fine line where it can be corny,” Mills said. “But I think what voters, especially younger voters, are wanting is some sort of relatability, some sort of personality you can’t always get from a campaign website.”

Mills also offered these tips to track down candidates:

  • Look for a candidate forum. These tend to see light attendance and can be a good opportunity for you to get some one-on-one time and ask questions.
  • Attend a happy hour thrown by a campaign looking to engage with voters in a laid-back setting
  • Just reach out to the candidate directly. You might be surprised to see how many answer direct messages and emails.

Early voting for the November elections begins Oct. 24. Election Day is Nov. 8.

Powerful positions often overlooked on statewide ballots

The Texas Land Commissioner oversees how the state manages public land, and the responsibilities include preserving wildlife, managing natural disaster relief funding, and overseeing the Alamo.

The position does not get a lot of attention when it comes to the election. But Democrat Jay Kleberg is trying to change that. His candidate web page features a video called “GLO 101” that details the history and responsibilities of the office. Kleberg says part of his mission is “educating as many people across the state about the importance of this office.”

Kleberg faces Republican Dawn Buckingham in the November election. Buckingham is a State Senator from Travis County.

The Land Commissioner oversees the Texas Permanent School Fund, oil and gas lease money from public land that provides a large portion of funding for Texas public schools. Both Kleberg and Buckingham say they’ll prioritize expanding that fund, but differ on their approaches.

In his campaign, Kleberg cites the importance of statewide leaders addressing climate change.

“There are opportunities to push and lean into innovation and technology, like large-scale carbon storage. That’s not only good for the environment, it’s good for our public schools,” Kleberg said.

Buckingham’s campaign website calls for “unleashing Texas energy,” suggesting that she would support expanded oil and natural gas drilling to help boost revenue for the Permanent School Fund.

“We’ll see what forms of energy fit in and where, but my priority is the constitutional duty of this office to help fund education,” Buckingham said in an interview with Lubbock’s KAMC.

This is a three-way race, with Libertarian Alonzo Echevarria-Garza on the ballot. We have not been able to reach him for an interview.

Also on the statewide ballot, Texas voters will have three choices for who they want to manage the state’s finances as Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Texas comptroller, also known as the state’s chief financial officer, is tasked with appropriating, managing and reporting Texas’ multi-billion dollar budget. The agency monitors the economy and communicates with the state legislature in planning the budget.

Incumbent Glenn Hegar, a Republican, said he’s seeking a third term because he wants to continue ensuring Texas is in a healthy fiscal state for generations to come.

“There’s been a lot of uncertainty in the national, the global economy over the course of the last two and a half years and watching Texas be able to grow out of the pandemic downturn, continue to improve,” Hegar said. “It’s important that we continue to be on the trajectory of economic opportunity and economic development for people in the state of Texas.”

He faces a challenge from Democrat Janet Dudding, a certified public accountant of 35 years from Bryan-College Station.

She’s touting her resume as a governmental accountant and said she hopes to take a new approach to the office if elected.

Dudding has criticized Hegar, saying she doesn’t think he has maximized Texans’ taxpayer dollars. Instead, she wants to use the state to focus on expanding services to Texans in need.

“We’ve got the ninth largest economy in the world, the second largest economy in the nation — and yet we’re 45th in public [education], 43rd in public health, 41st in air and water quality,” Dudding said.

There’s also a third candidate, V. Alonzo Echevarria-Garza, who is running as a Libertarian. Nexstar attempted to reach out to Echevarria-Garza to extend the same interview opportunity but could not find a campaign website or contact information.

Nexstar interviewed the candidates about their top priorities. It’s worth noting, the comptroller does not have the power to decide how Texas spends its money but can make recommendations to the legislature.

Dudding is proposing an in-depth study of “the methodology of the procedures that are used in property tax appraisals” and the removal of Texas Tax Code Chapter 313 — an agreement between the state and companies that choose to bring businesses here, in exchange for a 10-year discount on their property tax bills. 

“We need to get together with…the legislature…tear this thing apart and rework it so that it’s more equitable. We shouldn’t be forced out of our houses because of taxes,” Dudding said. 

Hegar said he’s concerned about housing affordability and property taxes. Many key Republican lawmakers have already signaled a desire to cut property taxes in the upcoming 2023 legislative session, but the incumbent did not indicate whether or not he supports doing so. His campaign website, however, describes him as “a relentless fighter against tax increases on hard-working Texans.”

U.S. Census Bureau data shows nearly 2.8 million households lack broadband access and high-speed internet connectivity.

The state legislature created a broadband development office, delegating it under the Texas Comptroller’s purview.

Hegar said outside of the chief duties of his office, his first and foremost priority is to connect Texans to the internet.

“My office is in charge of the federal dollars that are coming down and setting up procedures and processes upon which we’re going to try to work with the private sector to grant dollars and get dollars out so we can connect the state of Texas,” he said.

Dudding applauds the work started by Hegar, but she would like to expand broadband even further.

“Now is like the perfect opportunity with the money coming down from the federal government from the Biden administration,” Dudding said.

According to Dudding’s campaign website, she would also like to “explore local broadband as a utility fund of local governments to keep costs down, provide reliable service and… a revenue stream to rural local governments.” 

Hegar does not support the legalization of marijuana, saying he is not convinced taxing it would significantly boost the state’s revenue.

“Other states that have legalized marijuana and the usage of it they’ve also seen that the black market has actually thrived,” he said. “I think we’re going to create a lot more problems than we would otherwise if we legalize it across the state of Texas for everyday use.”

Dudding on the other hand fully supports legalizing marijuana and thinks taxing and regulating the product would be beneficial to the state.

“We’ve got enough other states that have legalized adult use recreationally that we can build best practices and build a Texas model,” she said. “It’s legal almost everywhere else. It’s time to get with the program.”