AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s lead over challenger Beto O’Rourke has significantly decreased, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday.

The poll results showed that 48% of Texas voters supported Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, and 43% supported Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke.

In Quinnipiac’s December poll of the race, Abbott was up 15 percentage points with 52% compared to O’Rourke at 37%.

Quinnipiac polled 1,257 Texas registered voters taken between June 9 and June 13. It comes as the first major poll taken following the Uvalde school shooting on May 24, when a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers.

The elementary school shooting was top of mind for voters, who ranked gun policy as the third most urgent issue facing Texans, behind the economy and the Texas-Mexico border as number one.

In an interview with Capitol Reporter Monica Madden, O’Rourke said that tracks with what he has been hearing on the campaign trail from voters.

“There are people all over this state — Republicans who’ve approached me, gun owners who’ve approached me and said, ‘hey Beto, I’m with you. We’ve got to do something,'” he said. “We can protect the Second Amendment while doing a far better job of protecting the lives of the people in our community.”

O’Rourke has joined the calls of other state Democrats criticizing the governor for not calling lawmakers back for a special legislative session.

“I would have called a special session literally the day after that shooting in Uvalde,” he said. “This current governor has called special sessions to go after transgender kids, to make it harder to vote in the state of Texas to tell teachers in our public schools what version of history they’re allowed to teach. Why in the world won’t [he] call a special session to save the lives of our kids before they return to school?”

Abbott has resisted calls for a special session. He and other Republicans have cited the fact that multiple state and federal investigations are still ongoing, saying they do not want to create policy before having all the facts.

In the weeks following the shooting at Robb Elementary School, the governor has directed numerous state agencies to check existing protocols, sent state resources to Uvalde for support. Speaker of the House Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, have also developed proposals for expanding upon mental health and school safety resources.

On school safety, 61% of Texas parents polled said they are either very concerned or somewhat concerned about a school shooting happening at their child’s school.

O’Rourke said if he were governor, he would focus efforts on expanding universal background checks, creating Red Flag and safe gun storage laws and expanding Medicaid to fully fund mental health care in Texas communities.

“The opportunity for us is to find out how much we can get done that’s going to both protect the Second Amendment and protect the lives of our kids,” he said. “The lives of our kids are on the ballot this November.”

Abbott’s campaign has continuously criticized O’Rourke’s stances on gun restrictions, long before the mass shooting in Uvalde.

The former El Paso congressman became known on the 2020 presidential campaign trail for his “Hell yes” promise to ban assault weapons. Since announcing his bid for governor, he has been less vocal on that policy but renewed his calls for such a ban after the tragedy in Uvalde. Abbott’s campaign has accused O’Rourke for “flip-flopping” on policy standpoints.

Moses, Ten Commandments back in Texas school curriculum debate

Moses and the Ten Commandments have reemerged in the debate over state school curriculum as education leaders weigh whether the biblical figure has a place in Texas classrooms.

The State Board of Education, or SBOE, is currently reassessing social studies teachings under the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, also known as TEKS. The board was slated to hear testimony on the topic at a meeting Wednesday.

Currently, the story of Moses is required learning as part of high school U.S. history, with Moses regarded by the state as an influence on the nation’s Founding Fathers.

The standard identifies Moses as an individual “whose principals of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents,” such as the U.S. Constitution.

The SBOE work group charged with reviewing social studies has recommended removing the required mentions of Moses, along with similar references to historical figures William Blackstone, John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu.

Work groups are typically made up of teachers, scholars, education experts and parents. They are tasked with reviewing standards and eliminating redundant or unnecessary requirements.

Similar recommendations to delete Moses failed in 2010 and 2018 after votes by the conservative-leaning 15-member education board.

Conservative group Texas Values told KXAN that it is opposed to the renewed proposal. Senior policy advisory Mary Elizabeth Castle was expected to provide testimony at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“[Moses] is very essential to understanding the foundation of our laws and government system with the Ten Commandments and how he set leaders over tribes,” Castle said. “But most importantly, he shouldn’t be deleted just because he’s a religious figure.”

Carisa Lopez with the progressive Texas Freedom Network called the push to keep Moses an attempt to inject conservative biases into school standards.

“There are good ways to talk about the profound influence of religion in our history without exaggerating,” Moses’ influence, Lopez said.

A more formalized draft of the full board’s recommendations is expected next month with a final board vote on the matter slated for November.

Have you seen Timothy Perez? Missing persons experts fear police determination impacting search

Robert and Sandra Perez have gotten used to the drive.

Every few days, they head from Conroe to Austin to look for their missing son, Timothy.

“We’re going to homeless shelters and any food places where they give food out — my son is not a homeless person — he doesn’t know that environment. But hopefully, his instinct kicks in and he’ll go get something to eat,” said Perez’ father, Robert.

They drive for hours across Central Texas talking to people and posting flyers.

“You know, we just need eyes out there — something, you know? Where did he go? He was here in Round Rock,” Robert added.

“We need help, because we don’t live around here,” echoed Timothy’s mother, Sandra.

Timothy, a 32-year-old musician in the Houston area, has been missing since March 5. His family said he was driving to Austin to visit his brother, but they never connected.

“He’s really bad with directions. So, I’m sure he got all turned around and he just got lost,” Sandra said. “He’s not familiar with the area. And so, in the process of getting lost, he ran out of gas.”

The family filed a missing persons report with Austin Police.

They said an officer found his car without gas along Interstate-35 near Parmer in north Austin, but no signs of Timothy. 

“Where is he? That’s the everyday question. Where is he?” Sandra said. “He was having a rough time, but I don’t think this was his plan. Who plans to run out of gas and walk off.”

The Perez family has posted this flyer across the Austin are. (Courtesy: Robert & Sandra Perez)

Timothy’s parents said he was dealing with some depression during the pandemic. They were told by police that he was last seen at St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock. 

Round Rock Police said the church made a welfare concern call for a man in the area and officers met with him, but he wouldn’t identify himself and left. The department added that, days later, they learned it was Timothy. 

Round Rock Police officials said they believe Timothy is voluntarily missing. 

“We believe he is voluntarily missing based on our officers’ interaction with him — in which it was determined he was not in danger, was not a danger to others, was not committing a crime — and based on the subsequent investigation,” said Nicholas Olivier, public information specialist with the Round Rock Police Department. “We do not know his current whereabouts or status. Round Rock was one location in which he was spotted, but we have no indication he is still in Round Rock.”

Olivier said there are many factors that go into missing persons investigations including:

  • Is the person a minor or adult? 
  • Does the person have mental or physical impairments that could put them in danger? 
  • Is the person suicidal or a threat to others?
  • And has the person committed a crime?
Timothy Perez was last seen in the Round Rock area on March 5th. (Courtesy: Robert & Sandra Perez)

He also provided a link from Wikiversity which explained that “a voluntary missing person, or someone who intentionally goes missing, is an individual who decides to leave, without informing family, loved ones or close affiliates of their whereabouts.” 

Timothy’s family adamantly said that’s not the case with him. 

“He’s somewhere where he doesn’t know where he is,” Sandra said. ” I just hope and pray that he’s okay. That’s my prayer, that he is okay. And we’re not ignoring stuff that we could be researching.”

Olivier said these types of cases, where they determine that someone is voluntarily missing, are rare.

He explained that they have received information that Timothy’s cell phone may have been in Conroe after officers connected with him at the church. 

His parents said they want police to investigate his cell phone records. 

Olivier said detectives have gone above and beyond to utilize all resources legally allowable.

Missing persons experts fear the term “voluntarily missing” is creating a dangerous loophole. 

“In certain cases, the term voluntarily missing can be very dangerous,” said Todd Matthew, former director of case management & communications for NamUs. “They might not know what’s happening to them. There’s cases where people have overdosed or just died completely of an accident, you know, struggling to find their way, getting lost in the woods even, drowning. There are so many things that can happen to a vulnerable person.”

Matthews worked with NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, for more than a decade and helped craft laws mandating the use of the national database to solve cases. 

In Texas, a new law requires law enforcement agencies, justices of the peace and medical examiners to use NamUs. 

The law says the agencies must enter forensic details into the database no later than 60 days after getting a missing persons report. 

Timothy Perez was visiting his brother when his family said he disappeared in March. (Courtesy: Robert & Sandra Perez)

Round Rock Police could not confirm if the reason why they didn’t enter Timothy into NamUs was because they considered him a voluntarily missing person.

NamUs does not track or classify cases as “voluntarily missing,” a spokesperson said, adding that all missing person cases submitted to NamUs are verified to be missing with law enforcement prior to publishing. 

Since the state law went into effect, there’s been a near-80% increase in Texas cases entered into the database. 

State Rep. Lacey Hull worked closely with the families to get the law passed last session. She’s already working on gaps in the law and will be looking to file additional legislation this upcoming session. 

She is aware of Timothy’s case. 

His family, not police, entered details about him into the database last month. 

“He’s never done this before, and I don’t see him doing this,” Robert said. 

Timothy’s mother added, “This is very out of character.”

The family is working with Texas EquuSearch and hired a private investigator to help with the investigation. 

If you have seen Timothy, call 512-844-7933 or EquuSearch at 281-309-9500. 

Texas Medical Board sets new rule for crime reporting after news investigation

In a direct response to an ongoing series of KXAN investigations, the Texas Medical Board approved a major rule change Friday impacting patient safety and transparency.

“Certainly, your reporting helped expedite that process,” said TMB president Dr. Sherif Zaafran.

The new rule, spurred by our investigation, requires doctors to self-report criminal convictions, out-of-state disciplinary actions and medical malpractice claims within 30 days. Previously, it was every two years. The TMB says it’s now more proactively updating its online profiles of physicians after KXAN found some out-of-state discipline records kept secret.

“It was brought to our attention that there were some gaps,” TMB executive director Stephen Carlton told board members at Friday’s meeting, in a reference to KXAN’s investigations. “Once it was brought to our attention, that this was something to expedite as far as a change, is when we brought this rule to you guys.”

“We’re always looking for ways we can improve. Sometimes we identify the way we can improve, sometimes others bring it to our attention,” Carlton added. “We’re always happy to do our best to improve processes. So, want to thank them [KXAN] for bringing to light an area where we can do better.”

Also, in response to KXAN’s investigations, Zaafran said he wants the legislature to require all doctors — not just new licensees — to be fingerprinted. In addition, the board plans to ask lawmakers for funding to continuously monitor every doctor in the state with the National Practitioner Data Bank. The NPDB charges $2.50 a year to do a “continuous query” of doctors.

“Our mission is to protect patients,” said Zaafran, who read the TMB’s mission statement at the start of the board meeting.

Following the meeting, for the first time, Zaafran sat down to answer KXAN’s questions in a wide-ranging interview. This comes following revelations that doctors with medical licenses revoked in other states were allowed to practice in Texas along with physicians the board deemed to be a “threat” to the public.

“Why allow doctors that you deemed to be a threat to public welfare,” asked KXAN investigator Matt Grant, “including doctors credibly accused of sexual misconduct with patients — minors in some cases — why allow them to keep practicing?”

“You know, you’re absolutely right. That is something that we always want to make sure that the public is aware and protected from instances like that,” Zaafran said. “The struggle we have is when you talk about somebody who’s been accused and somebody who’s actually had a conviction against them.”

The challenge for the board, Zaafran said, is balancing a doctor’s right to due process with evidence available to the board. A difficult task, he said, when there’s not a criminal conviction. Any punishment must also withstand a challenge in court, he added. That has led to disciplinary actions like limiting which patients doctors can treat or whether they can prescribe controlled substances.

“I think the frustration from patients, and the public, is that it seems these doctors, deemed to be a danger, are allowed to keep treating patients and the only way they’re stopped is when they’re in handcuffs,” Grant said. “Shouldn’t it be your responsibility to protect the public?”

“You know, if I was the one who would be able to do things without having to be restricted by statute,” Zaafran replied, “I absolutely would.”

“We do what we can, within our legal authority,” he added, “to prevent them from going out and harming the public.”

The Texas Medical Board met virtually with limited in-person staff at its June 10 meeting. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

Zaafran rejected the notion that the board is political — even though he and a half-dozen of his fellow board members have collectively given nearly $400,000 to Gov. Greg Abbott, who appointed them. He noted “many board members have not contributed” to Abbott.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “we’re all held accountable to what we do.”

Dismissing criticism by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke — who called TMB appointments “pay-to-play” — Zaafran said the same argument “could be made on both sides of the aisle.” Asked about O’Rourke’s campaign promise to increase the number of public non-medical board members, in response to KXAN’s investigations, Zaafran said the current structure “is working.”

Dr. Sherif Zaafran sits down with KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

A KXAN analysis of every state medical board in the country found Texas has among the highest number of public members. However, O’Rourke and patient safety advocates have called for those members to come from public safety and patient advocacy backgrounds. Zaafran touted the need for “a variety of backgrounds” but admitted “yes it would” be helpful to have public members with patient-safety experience.

The board president said he wants to work with lawmakers, from both parties, next session to improve the TMB and better protect patients. However, Zaafran was critical of a legislative proposal by State Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood). Hall wants to eliminate confidential complaints. Zaafran believes that would allow more cases like “Dr. Death.” That’s because physicians may be afraid of retaliation for filing a complaint against another doctor, he said.

“What would you say to people who feel the Texas Medical Board isn’t transparent?,” asked Grant, referencing out-of-state discipline records found by KXAN that were not published on the TMB’s website, contrary to state law.

“And,” Grant asked, referencing doctors deemed a “threat” allowed to still treat patients, “isn’t doing its job?”

“We are as transparent as we can,” Zaafran said. “Can we always do better? Absolutely.”