Texas spent $30M on tuition under program with lax rules

Over the past two decades, Texas agencies have spent at least $30 million on tuition payment programs for state workers in a program with lax rules and oversight, according to a newspaper review of payment records and policies.

Of the three rules governing the payment of tuitions -- which include requiring agencies adopt a policy regarding recipient eligibility, put payments toward education programs related to job duties and prohibit agencies from paying in advance of six weeks before classes begin -- all may have been violated, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The investigation, which reviewed 40,000 records at two dozen state agencies, also found that that high-ranking officials making six-figure salaries were being paid up-front tuition costs, a controversial practice because it does not make employees prove that they have passed their courses. Other problems included the appearance of favoritism when it came to handing out tuition payments, a lack of requiring recipients to repay tuition if they leave the state's payroll after completing classes and workers taking classes at private universities, including some outside of Texas.

Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based group, told the newspaper "it's absolutely a recipe for problems."

The Texas Department of Transportation paid out at least $13 million since 1993, the most of any state agency. Records showed it has spent more than half a million dollars in a category of education programs it labels as "non-job related," and also issues all of its payments before classes begin.

Transportation spokeswoman Veronica Beyer rejected the idea that her agency may have violated state law, saying the rules allow for payments in the weeks before classes begin. She told the newspaper that the spending gives the department "flexibility to cross-train employees and to plan for succession."

Health and human services agencies spent roughly $4 million on tuition payments since 1993, with the central health commission spending $519,000 on just 34 employees, more per-recipient than any other agency, the newspaper reported. The health commission also said they followed state law.

Two bills in the Texas state legislature are looking to rein in the spending by banning up-front payments and requiring agency directors approve and make public any tuition payments.

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