The state senator from Northeast Texas said Thursday he’s in talks this week to cool down heated opposition to two of his bills, one of them a high-priority elections measure attacking mail ballot election fraud and another limiting who can perform nonsurgical medical cosmetic procedures at medical spas.
Senate Bill 2366 would prohibit anyone other than a physician assistant or an advanced practice registered nurse — both of whom must work under the supervision of a licensed physician — from carrying out nonsurgical medical procedures.
The bill by Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, defines a medical spa as a business that offers nonsurgical cosmetic procedures such as injection of medication “or substances” for cosmetic purposes, the administration of colonic irrigations or the use of a prescription medical device for cosmetic purposes.
However, a petition opposing SB 2366 drew 2,924 online signatures before the nurse who started it took it down Wednesday afternoon.
Crystal Cigarroa of Dallas wrote on the Change.org website, where the petition was swelling, that she took it down to let Hughes and the Texas Nurses Association work out their differences.
“We’ve got that fixed,” Hughes said, adding his intention was not to prevent nurses from doing their jobs. “The concerns they had with the bill, those are going away. This is how (lawmaking is) supposed to work, and the process is messy sometimes.”
Neither Cigarroa nor the nurses association responded to online messages seeking comment.
But Hughes might still have some negotiations to undertake with the Texas Civil Rights Project to clear their objections to his Senate Bill 9. Taking aim at mail-in ballot fraud, Hughes’ bill has drawn accusations of voter suppression, that it puts people who assist disabled voters in jeopardy of criminal charges if they make an inadvertent mistake.
“I think they’re misreading the bill,” the senator said Thursday. “The bill is aimed at folks who are cheating and are abusing the rules.”
Hughes chaired the Senate Select Committee on Election Security during 2018, learning that questions of potential mail ballot fraud were arising in two parts of the state — the Rio Grande Valley and Gregg County’s Pct. 4. The panel in December issued a 17-page report recommending measures Hughes built into SB 9, which also requires a paper audit trail be available from electronic voting machines.
And he insisted Thursday that voter suppression is not the intent of the measure.
“It’s to make sure that every legal vote is cast and counted accurately,” he said, objecting to characterizations that a helper with nothing but good intentions could be criminally liable for a mistake. “The law still requires intent. This is not a situation where someone checks the wrong box and gets in trouble.”
SB 9, he said, is taking aim at so-called vote harvesters who intentionally steer mail-in ballot voters, either through coercion or outright theft of their mail ballot, toward a particular candidate.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office has been investigating such a complaint from Gregg County’s mostly Democratic Pct. 4 since last May.
During last spring’s Democratic primary runoff, candidate Kasha Williams held a 19 percent lead until mail ballots turned the race to Shannon Brown, who now is the county commissioner. The complaint was not filed by Williams.
Hughes’ bill would require people who help disabled voters cast a mail-in ballot officially certify that the voter they help is physically unable to enter a poll without risk to harm.
It also allows poll watchers to accompany both the voter and helper into the voting area. And it increases the penalty for making a false statement on a mail ballot application from a misdemeanor to state jail felony.
The Texas Civil Rights Project did not return phone messages or respond to emails sent Wednesday and Thursday. A letter the group sent Hughes on March 19 says Hughes’ bill will “effectively eliminate any intent requirement” for prosecutions and “ ... signals a clear effort to make prosecutions against those who make honest mistakes.”
Hughes denied that is the bill’s intent and said he’s in conversation with the group.
“We’ve had a little bit of dialogue back and forth,” he said. “But that’s still going on.”
The group also criticized a provision making it an offense to physically block access within 1,000 feet of polls, described as unworkable since polls often are in occupied areas and 1,000 feet could be in the next block.
Hughes said the 1,000-foot rule is in response to another form of fraudulent voter “assistance,” which he likened to the old bad-lawyer cliche of “ambulance chasing.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” he said, describing busloads of partisan campaigners who can crowd the entries to polls.
“Because mail ballots are not as ripe for stealing (as they were), they’ll line up at the polling place,” he said. “And they’ll come up and say, ‘Oh. You need assistance, don’t you?’ They’re actually lining up at the polling place saying, ‘You need assistance.’”
Hughes said he expects SB 9 to have a committee vote “in the next week or two.”