Texas is considering asking drivers to help it clear its huge backlog of untested rape kits, a novel approach that has been well received by cost-conscious Republican lawmakers and one that other states might consider.
The Republican-controlled Texas House on Wednesday gave tentative approval to the bill, which would ask drivers renewing their licenses to donate $1 or more to help test the thousands of rape kits awaiting analysis. It would still need the state Senate's approval and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's signature to become law, but it hasn't encountered any resistance thus far.
Victim rights groups say it appears to be unprecedented, though New Mexico may enact a law this week that would allow people to donate part of their tax returns to help clear its backlog.
Budget officials estimate that the Texas bill would raise about $1 million in donations. Its sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Victoria Neave, described it as something of an imperfect solution at a time when Republican-controlled Legislature is trying to cut billions of dollars in spending amid a budget crunch.
"Frankly, I believe that our state should be fully funding this," Neave said. "But I wanted to come up with a creative solution to generate revenue to help end the backlog."
Fully funding anything will be difficult this year in Texas, where a prolonged oil slowdown has left the state short billions of dollars to keep pace with a rapidly growing population. Deep cuts to higher education and Medicaid are on the table, and although about $4 million for rape kit-testing is included in a spending bill that House lawmakers will consider Thursday, there is no guarantee that money will remain in the budget sent to Abbott's desk this summer.
Texas has about 3,800 untested kits at a state lab and thousands more in cities such as Dallas and Austin, Neave said, who is one of only 29 women in the 150-member Texas House. Processing a single one costs anywhere from $500 to $2,000, she said.
Liz Boyce, an attorney with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, called the bill an innovative approach that was unlike anything she has come across.
"Money is tight, policy is the way things are. It's a reality that legislators by and large don't want to throw tax dollars into the mix on some of these issues that don't impact every single person across the state," Boyce said. "We're just glad someone is trying to come up with another solution."
Many states are struggling with large backlogs of untested rape kits. Nationwide, there are between 100,000 and 400,000 untested sexual assault kits, and at least 28 states have enacted laws to address the problem, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.