An emergency request to hire more than 800 new employees and grant immediate pay raises at Texas Child Protective Services won final approval from state GOP leaders Thursday.
But it took last-minute haggling, as key Senate Republicans demanded there be strings attached to the $12,000 raises for about 6,000 front-line workers and salary increases of varying percentage amounts for an additional 1,110 managers and special investigators.
The raises and approval to begin hiring 829 new employees appeared to get a green light when a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Patrick and Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson were on board — though still pressing for unspecified tweaks.
“Our approval has been submitted to LBB,” Keith Elkins, Patrick’s communications director, wrote in an email.
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He was referring to the Legislative Budget Board, a group of 10 lawmakers who closely track the state budget.
In the procedure used for approving CPS’ emergency spending request, the board doesn’t have to act in a public meeting. The request only needs written approvals from the offices of Gov. Greg Abbott, Patrick, Nelson, Speaker Joe Straus and House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Otto, officials said.
“We have added some additional accountability measures that we are working on with the House,” said Elkins, the Patrick spokesman.
About 90 minutes later, Straus spokesman Jason Embry said the House and Senate agreed on the conditions attached to the salary increases, though he did not elaborate.
Officials said that the dual announcements meant that the raises and hiring of new employees could begin by the close of business Thursday, as state protective services chief Henry “Hank” Whitman urged.
The complicated, behind-the-scenes maneuvering comes as state GOP leaders struggle to defend their management of CPS and Texas’ foster care system in the 14 years Republicans have enjoyed total command of state government.
The system is underfunded, child advocates say. Texas spends only about half of the national average among the 50 states on child protection.
Texas’ low financial contribution began in earlier decades, when Democrats were in power in Austin — or shared control with Republicans.
Since 2004, though, there have been repeated instances in which CPS ignored obvious threats to particular children and didn’t protect them. Brutal killings of foster children in Texas’ increasingly privatized system of foster care also sparked legislative overhauls and cash infusions. The money brought Texas’ funding up from about 38 percent of the national norm.
The latest crisis began building a year ago, when a federal judge ruled that “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication and instability are the norm” for about 12,000 foster children who have been in CPS’ custody for at least one year to 18 months or more.
This year brought reports by The Dallas Morning News about a breakdown in Dallas County child-abuse investigations, a mass evacuation of severely disturbed foster children from two questionable private vendor facilities in West Texas and the case of 4-year-old Leiliana Wright of Grand Prairie, who was fatally beaten despite repeated warning signs that she was at risk.
Abbott shook up the agency’s leadership, installing Whitman atop the Department of Family and Protective Services.
But in May and again in October, The News reported on widespread failures by CPS to swiftly check on tens of thousands of children at risk of abuse and neglect. After analyzing an agency database tracking initial visits with kids mentioned in over 7,300 child maltreatment cases in the Houston area, The News disclosed that through early September, half of children referred to Harris County’s CPS investigators weren’t being seen on time.
In 1 in 5 open cases, children weren’t being seen at all.
By late October, Whitman supplemented an earlier two-year budget request, which was silent about pay raises, with a plea for permission to give $12,000 raises to all CPS caseworkers and certain other agency employees.
In mid-October, he’d proposed a Dec. 1 start date for his emergency request to hire 550 new caseworkers and 279 additional supervisors, support staff, and training and hiring specialists. That came as he was ordering overtime work and seeking help from state police to find children who weren’t being seen in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.
His pay raises and new hires requests, which would cost $144.7 million in the final nine months of the current fiscal year, set off weeks of infighting.
Senate leaders signaled that they wanted the salary increases first — and that they were loath to grant Whitman the 829 new hires. But key House members reversed the order of priority: The new hires were the CPS chief’s original request, to which they agreed, House members said privately. The Senate-driven pay raises were probably necessary but weren’t well thought out, House members complained.
Last week, Steven Albright, Abbott’s budget director, formally blessed the plan.
On Thursday morning, the plan initially won backing from the two House leaders whose approval was needed — Straus, R-San Antonio, and Otto, R-Dayton.
Patrick and Nelson, R-Flower Mound, added their approval about 90 minutes later. But they said the Senate wanted the “performance measures.”
Nearly 90 minutes later, Embry, the Straus spokesman, emailed news that the House had agreed to add accountability measures.
“2 chambers are agreed on the acct measures,” he wrote.