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Senators Vow to Tighten Emergency Leave Rules

Members of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday vowed to "tighten it up" when it comes to granting emergency leave to state employees.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a comment from House Speaker Joe Straus.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday vowed to "tighten it up" when it comes to granting emergency leave to state employees — a move that followed news reports of Attorney General Ken Paxton and other agency heads using it to compensate outgoing employees.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, detoured from the Senate Finance Committee agenda to ask representatives from the Legislative Budget Board and the Texas Comptroller's Office about the appropriate uses of emergency leave and how the Legislature can provide "proper oversight."

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said agencies using emergency leave to issue severance packages are misusing taxpayer dollars.

"That's not a good cause, that's not an emergency — that's a severance," he said. 

His concerns were echoed by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who said the Legislature would have to adopt some "top-down guidelines" for the issue next session.

"Good cause does not mean common sense," he said.

State employees in Texas are not awarded severance pay when they are fired or leave their posts, but recent reports from The Dallas Morning News and other news organizations show the embattled AG granted emergency leave to at least three top officials in his office after they resigned, keeping them on the state payroll for months.

That's not a good cause, that's not an emergency — that's a severance.— Sen. Royce West on reports of state agency heads granting emergency leave to departing employees

Emergency leave is generally granted to state employees who have a death in the family or other crisis, allowing them to take a leave of absence without a deduction in salary. Agency heads have the authority to grant emergency leave for employees who show "good cause" for taking the leave.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said after the hearing that the House is also worried about potential abuse of emergency leave.

"The House is concerned that some state agencies are abusing a personnel provision that should be reserved for very specific circumstances," Straus said in a statement. "I will work with my colleagues to see how we should limit use of this provision and ensure that agencies use taxpayer dollars appropriately."

The Morning News also reported that other agency heads had granted emergency leave to departing employees, including Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. Since 2013, the Ag Department has granted the most emergency leave per employee, according to the paper's review. 

During Tuesday's hearing, Phillip Ashley, associate deputy comptroller, said there are two layers of oversight for emergency leave — the agency and the state auditor's office. He said if the Legislature wanted to alter oversight, the statute for emergency leave could be amended or it could be addressed in the biennial budget.

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Politics State government 84th Legislative Session Texas Legislature Texas Senate