Abbott’s staff pay needs closer scrutiny

August 20, 2018

If Gov. Greg Abbott is concerned about sharp increases in state spending — and he should be — he should take a closer look at the salaries he is paying his top aides. He is spending about $19 million in staff salaries compared to the $16 million that Gov. Rick Perry spent in his last year in 2014. Abbott has nearly doubled the number of six-figure earners in his office to 48 from Perry’s totals. Five of Abbott’s top administrators each make $265,00 a year, far more than his own salary of $153,750 (which is limited by state law). Perry had just two aides who made more than $200,000 in his final year.

That’s noteworthy for a governor who has supported efforts to limit property taxes and other forms of state spending. The Legislature approves a set amount for staff salaries for Abbott, which he can apportion as it he wants. But this has traditionally been a cozy arrangement in Austin, with top state officials generally getting what they seek. They’re all Republicans, and the GOP has solid majorities in the House and Senate.

In other big states like Florida, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania, top aides to governors make less than $200,000 a year. Even in California, often mocked as the anti-Texas of big spending and liberal politics, the highest aides to Gov. Jerry Brown make $210,000 per year — in a state with a much higher cost of living.

Keep in mind that public service is not supposed to make anyone rich. With top-level aides, it involves an understanding that people will serve their government for a few years and then return to more lucrative positions in the private sector.

The five administrators in Texas who make $265,000 per year have also been paid $11,000 to $21,700 since February from Abbott’s re-election campaign. It’s legal, but it crosses a line that is getting increasingly blurred in Texas, as with Ag Commissioner Sid Miller accepting five-figure campaign donations from his own top staffers.

State government needs clearer boundaries between campaign money and state salaries. With so many millions of dollars being raised by statewide candidates, that could easily be done. The goal should be a familiar one on ethical issues: avoiding not just overt violations but even the appearance of wrongdoing.

To Abbott’s credit, some of these expenditures could be defended. While $265,000 per year seems quite high to average Texans — like, ahem, public school teachers who may need second jobs to get by — it’s not unheard of for top-level administrators in other professions. But it’s still up there, just like the surge in six-figure staffers.

If this trend keeps going, as they often do, the numbers could become indefensibly high. The Legislature should head that off in the next regular session that begins in January.

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