- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - State agencies must stop offering severance pay, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered Wednesday in light of reports that Attorney General Ken Paxton and Land Commissioner George P. Bush have quietly kept former employees on the payroll at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to taxpayers.

Bush and Paxton, who have defended the arrangements as practical and legal, said they would comply even though the governor can’t enforce such rules on other elected officials.

Abbott did not single out Paxton or Bush in a memo to agency leaders. But the directive essentially takes aim at how the two prominent Republicans continued paying former staffers long after they stopped coming to work, and was revealed following investigations by The Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle.

The staffers included a former Paxton aide who left to help Republican Ted Cruz’s presidential run and more than two dozen General Land Office employees whom Bush didn’t retain after taking over in 2015. Bush’s office has defended the settlement agreements, which amounted to at least $383,000, as a way of sparing the state from potential lawsuits from fired employees.

Severance pay is not allowed in Texas government, but Paxton’s office has said payments to former top aides were permissible under administrative leave policies. Abbott, however, made clear that such interpretations or workarounds going forward would not be allowed.

“The use of emergency leave, administrative leave or other mechanisms to continue paying state employees who have ceased to work will be prohibited,” Abbott wrote.

Abbott said his order will remain in place until the issue is taken up next year by the Texas Legislature, which has already signaled a coming crackdown. Republican House Speaker Joe Straus told one of his committees Wednesday to delve into the issue before lawmakers return in 2017.

“The public should have confidence that state agencies are being cautious with taxpayer dollars,” Straus wrote in a letter to the chair of the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee.

Bush spokeswoman Brittany Eck said their agency will suspend the use of separation agreements until the Legislature provides clarification. On Tuesday, a left-leaning political group asked state investigators to look into whether the severance packages across state government were proper.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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