Investigator jobs remain unfilled
Some get exceptions from Abbott’s order; others wait, worry
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.
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.
declared a state hiring freeze in January.