Or, About Getting Paid After You Quit Working for the State
Yesterday, something strange happened at an interim senate hearing on tax relief. For a brief moment, the curtain Republicans work so hard to keep over the way they actually run state government slipped. And the person who pulled it aside was none other than one of the senior keepers of Oz, Senator Jane Nelson herself, all powerful chair of the Senate Finance Committee.
Senator Nelson kicked off a committee meeting with an aside on an unscheduled topic–the practice of granting emergency leave to former state employees as a type of severance pay. This is the nifty trick that first came to attention because our state’s two outstanding, indicted statewide elected officials, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, have used it at their respective agencies. However, it turns out they’re not alone. According to David McSwane’s excellent piece last weekend in The Dallas Morning News, emergency leave has been used similarly at multiple agencies.
Apparently, this news came as something of a shock to Senator Nelson. Here’s how she put it:
Members, before we begin there’s just one little issue that I’d like to talk about with the Comptroller’s Office and the Legislative Budget Board, an issue that’s been getting lot of attention lately, and I’m sure that you all saw the same things in the newspaper that I saw, Senator West.
Before I allow Senator Nelson to continue speaking for herself, I have to jump in. When she said “just one little issue,” she raised her voice in a singsong kind of way, and I swear to God, she was channeling Dana Carvey’s Church Lady. It’s not a big problem, nothing really, just one little issue. She’s not calling anyone out, or saying they did anything wrong, just one little issue. You can hear for yourself on the video of the meeting at the one minute mark.
There have been some concerning reports about the use of emergency leave at some of our agencies. And I guess my first question is, my staff will tell that I called and asked them these questions and they didn’t know, so I said, ‘Wait, we’re going to have the Comptroller’s Office and LBB here, I’m gonna ask them.’
So if you all would indulge me for just a minute, I understand the value of allowing for emergency leave when the circumstances are appropriate, but how do we ensure that it is being used appropriately, and what are some of the ways that we could provide proper oversight? And I have a better understanding now, but I would like more information, you know, who oversees this and who’s monitoring it? [… W]e may need some legislation next session to tighten things up or clarify some of this.
Those of you at the higher reading level will already be smacking your heads. In case it’s not clear: what Senator Nelson is doing here is asking WHO IS MINDING THE HENHOUSE? WHEN SHE RUNS THE HENHOUSE. SHE AND HER ENTIRE POSSE OF REPUBLICAN ELECTEDS WHO HOLD EVERY MAJOR OFFICE AT THE STATE LEVEL. And she needs to know who’s monitoring this emergency leave situation.
I love this so much, I just can’t stop smiling. I love the way Jane Nelson interrupted the representative from the comptroller’s office when he was about to say that the statute was “essentially” an open invitation to agency heads to do things their way, with no supervision or oversight allowed. It was as though she knew what he was going to say and she just could not let him go through with it. What’s even better? She interrupted him to say that she was in the state senate when they wrote the crappy, oversight-less statute back in 1999! Here’s the one thing she’s always sure to make clear in any of her folksy, PTA mom, essentially contentless exchanges. (By the way, none of the senators mentioned either Paxton or Miller by name. I guess a gentleman or a lady does not tell in the Texas Senate.)
Then came the exchange with Democratic Senators Royce West and Chuy Hinojosa. To set the scene, Senator West actually broke through the fourth wall of the hearing and basically said this situation is total bullshit (not his words). Here’s what he said (his actual words):
‘Good cause’ is the criteria for taking an emergency leave. And, frankly, I think it’s a misuse, and I hope my colleagues will agree with me, if you have someone that’s using this particular provision and using it for a severance package, that’s not ‘good cause.’ That’s not an emergency. That’s a separation. And it’s the wrong use of the taxpayers money, in my judgement.
Honestly, the end was powerful in a Samuel L. Jackson soliloquy kind of way.
Then Senator Hinojosa decided to explain the situation as he saw it:
The problem is that an agency head does not have to agree with your interpretation because the way the statute is written, ‘good cause’ is up to the discretion of the head of the agency.
He may as well have been saying “There is no spoon” to Nelson’s desperate search for oversight.
Nelson crowed, “Thus my reason for bringing this up.” Score, Senator Nelson, for even knowing there’s such a thing as a spoon!
At one point, Nelson told the comptroller’s and LBB representatives at the microphone that the Legislature might need to be notified whenever an agency head grants emergency leave. I see two problems with this approach. One, how are you going to attract the best and the brightest to head up state agencies if they’re going to have to answer to Jane Nelson (who probably is a whole lot like most of their moms) whenever they decide to pay someone who’s no longer employed by the state of Texas? Two, with over 150 state agencies and public universities, that could be a whole lot of notifications. Senator Nelson might need to up her data plan. And get somebody working on those curtains. Session is coming.