- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Top staffers at the Texas General Land Office routinely collected cash bonuses worth tens of thousands of dollars despite earning annual salaries exceeding $100,000 under its former commissioner - and many remained in powerful posts until a major staff shakeup in recent weeks, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Such “one-time merit increase” bonuses are common throughout Texas government, but in other agencies are often small pay bumps for employees who aren’t otherwise highly compensated.

Beginning when Jerry Patterson became land commissioner in January 2003 through fiscal year 2015, his office paid more than $6.5 million in one-time merit bonuses, according to data obtained via open records requests. That included more than $1.2 million just in Patterson’s final months, after he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.

“We used it quite a bit to give people essentially bonuses for a good job as opposed to a pay raise since that raise stays there the following year, when they may not do such a good job,” Patterson said.

His successor, George P. Bush, whose grandfather and uncle were president and whose father is campaigning for the White House, took office Jan. 2 and has led an agency “reboot,” vowing to impose fiscal conservativism. More than 100 staff members have been fired or voluntarily left since then, 26 of whom accepted $15,000 payments to retire early.

General Land Office spokeswoman Brittany Eck said Sunday that “the majority if not all” of the staffers receiving large previous bonuses under Patterson had left the agency after the latest round of dismissals, retirements or transfers that occurred just in the last two weeks.

Bush has nonetheless paid about $200,000 in bonuses this fiscal year, but the agency says most were honoring Patterson’s agreements.

“Incentives should be limited and awarded only in cases of exceptional work,” Bush told the AP in a statement. He also noted that he’s instituting zero-based budgeting, requiring each part of the agency to justify its funding every cycle.

The General Land Office’s many duties include leasing public land for oil and natural gas exploration, meaning it generates more state revenue than it spends. The Legislature nonetheless distributes funding by “strategy,” or based on the different programs each agency sector tackles.

Section managers then have discretion on how that money is spent, including on hiring more employees or bonuses for existing ones. That makes it difficult to show funding for bonuses not otherwise going to efforts like battling erosion on public beaches.

Patterson noted that, during his tenure, the agency brought in $8.1 billion in revenue for the Permanent School Fund, which covers some public education costs - more than the combined $7.9 billion the office deposited in the fund during the previous nearly 130 years. He acknowledged that rising oil prices helped, but said his key lieutenants also grew state revenue in other ways, including via smart investments of public funds.

“I’m proud of the fact that we were leading in giving people bonuses,” Patterson said. “My regret is I wish I could’ve paid them more.”

Patterson added that Bush’s agency downsizing will ultimately mean generating less state revenue, calling his successor a “formulaic conservative.”

“He wants to able to tell people, ‘I cut 20 percent of X,” Patterson said “without describing, ‘Ok, how did that impact my revenues.’”

According to Texas Comptroller data, all state agencies spent a combined around $230 million on one-time merit increases between fiscal years 2006 and 2014. But that’s inflated by buyouts offered to employees who agreed to retire early. The land commissioner’s office bonus totals don’t include retirement buyouts.

The largest bonus recipients at the General Land Office and elsewhere were officials who handle investments of state funds and got extra pay for generating positive returns. Many agencies also spent more on bonuses than the land office under Patterson and Bush, including the Attorney General’s Office and the Health and Human Services Commission. But those are far larger than the land commissioner’s office, which is capped at around 650 employees and falling to less than 600 under Bush.

The comptroller data also showed that merit bonuses across Texas state government are often worth $2,000 or less and paid sparingly to non-managers. Many of the largest General Land Office bonuses were worth $20,000-plus apiece, and went repeatedly to officials who worked closely with Patterson, including at least a dozen of his deputy commissioners.

Patterson’s No. 2, Deputy Land Commissioner and Chief Clerk Larry Laine, collected nearly $125,000 in bonuses between 2003 and 2014, despite an annual salary topping out at $220,000-plus.

Mark Loeffler, spokesman for Patterson’s 2002 campaign and later communications director at land commissioner’s office, got nearly $90,000 in bonuses from 2004-2014 despite a position that paid him as much as $155,000-plus annually. And James LeGrand, who was Patterson’s chief administration officer, collected bonuses worth nearly $80,000-plus between 2003 and 2014.

Laine, Loeffler and Legrand have all since left. But many other top staffers who got $15,000 or more in recent bonuses remained in high-level positions under Bush until this month - including six of Patterson’s former deputy commissioners. But Eck said Sunday that large bonus recipients retaining their jobs after the latest staffing changes were only those handling investments for the agency, who get regularly scheduled pay increases based on performance.

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