In­ves­ti­ga­tor jobs re­main un­filled

Some get ex­cep­tions from Ab­bott’s or­der; others wait, worry

The Dallas Morning News - - FRONT PAGE - By MILES MOFFEIT and BRANDI GRIS­SOM Staff Writ­ers

In­com­pe­tent nurses. Jail es­capes. In­vest­ment swindlers.

All are sup­posed to be in­ves­ti­gated by state work­ers whose job is to pro­tect the pub­lic. But many in­ves­tiga­tive jobs across Texas re­main un­filled af­ter Gov. Greg Ab­bott de­clared a state hir­ing freeze in Jan­uary, ac­cord­ing to a re­view by The Dal­las Morn­ing News.

In some cases, va­can­cies have per­sisted for more than two months de­spite pleas from of­fi­cials of state agen­cies ask­ing for ex­cep­tions to the freeze in the name of pub­lic safety.

The gov­er­nor’s of­fice agreed to fill dozens of state in­ves­tiga­tive jobs af­ter The News on April 5 asked for pub­lic records on agen­cies’ re­quests to hire work­ers de­spite the freeze.

On Wed­nes­day, the Texas Depart­ment of In­sur­ance

re­ceived per­mis­sion to fill six po­si­tions in­clud­ing a prose­cu­tor to help in­ves­ti­gate fraud and ar­son. The gov­er­nor also granted a re­quest Tues­day from the Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity to fill 24 va­cant jobs for in­spec­tors who in­ves­ti­gate haz­ardous spills and en­sure wa­ter and air qual­ity.

“Pub­lic safety is a top con­cern for Gov­er­nor Ab­bott,’’ said spokesman John Wittman.

Ab­bott said he pro­hib­ited new hir­ing in an at­tempt to save Texas about $200 mil­lion in an­tic­i­pa­tion of a state bud­get short­fall. He al­lowed for some ex­cep­tions, in­clud­ing jobs with “a di­rect im­pact on pub­lic safety,” and in­vited agency chiefs to re­quest waivers to his or­der.

More than 50 agen­cies did so, and sev­eral got per­mis­sion to fill some jobs they said were ur­gent to safe­guard vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions, such as pa­tients and res­i­dents in sta­te­owned care fa­cil­i­ties, records show. Ab­bott also al­lowed law en­force­ment agen­cies to hire more staff or fill va­can­cies.

But some agen­cies’ re­quests have con­tin­ued to lan­guish, leav­ing at least 30 in­ves­tiga­tive jobs un­filled. They in­clude two at the Texas Com­mis­sion on Jail Stan­dards, and one at the Texas State Se­cu­ri­ties Board.

Waiver re­quests

The di­rec­tor of the state nurs­ing board, which has three in­ves­tiga­tive va­can­cies, no­ti­fied the gov­er­nor of 4,441 open com­plaints lodged with her agency. The in­creased caseload, she said, jeop­ar­dizes in­ves­ti­ga­tors’ abil­ity to “pro­tect the pub­lic from in­com­pe­tent or dan­ger­ous nurs­ing care.”

The Of­fice of In­jured Em­ployee Coun­sel is down 21 om­buds­men who are charged with pro­tect­ing the le­gal rights of em­ploy­ees hurt on the job. That of­fice filed its waiver re­quest Feb. 14.

The state Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Com­mis­sion was suc­cess­ful in seek­ing waivers for health care jobs that fell vic­tim to the freeze. But it has held off in seek­ing ap­proval to fill a deficit in its in­spec­tor gen­eral’s in­ves­tiga­tive unit, which has 33 va­can­cies. Work­ers there gen­er­ally in­ves­ti­gate health care fraud and poor pa­tient treat­ment.

“Be­ing able to give peo­ple the best treat­ment pos­si­ble in safe set­tings is our fo­cus right now,” said the agency’s spokes­woman, Car­rie Wil­liams. “We’re able to tem­po­rar­ily ab­sorb the cur­rent work­load.”

Pub­lic at risk?

State em­ployee groups and safety ad­vo­cates say that some staff short­ages have put the pub­lic at risk of crime or safety threats while po­ten­tially stalling jus­tice for crime victims.

State in­ves­ti­ga­tors “serve a crit­i­cally im­por­tant role in so­ci­ety tak­ing care of some of our el­derly and most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple,” said Seth Hutchin­son, vice pres­i­dent of the Texas State Em­ploy­ees Union. “Their work­loads are go­ing through the roof.”

Hutchin­son called Ab­bott’s hir­ing freeze “un­heard of.” While in­di­vid­ual agen­cies oc­ca­sion­ally stop hir­ing to get through bud­get short­falls, a statewide halt is highly un­usual, he said, par­tic­u­larly be­cause Texas isn’t fac­ing a fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Rainy day fund

Bud­get writ­ers com­ing into the 2017 leg­isla­tive ses­sion were look­ing at about $4 bil­lion less money in state cof­fers than dur­ing the last two-year bud­get cy­cle be­cause of a down­turn in oil and gas rev­enue.

But the state has more than $10 bil­lion in its emer­gency sav­ings ac­count known as the rainy day fund — the big­gest bal­ance of any such ac­count in the na­tion. And state of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that fund will grow to nearly $12 bil­lion over the next two years.

The House and Se­nate are cur­rently at log­ger­heads over whether to tap the rainy day fund for state ex­penses in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion and child wel­fare. The gov­er­nor has warned leg­is­la­tors not to “loot” the fund.

GREG AB­BOTT

de­clared a state hir­ing freeze in Jan­uary.

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