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Texas owes $13.2 million in claims

Texas owes $13.2 million in claims

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AUSTIN - Patricia King was a state prison employee in 1999 when she complained to authorities that for 10 months she had withstood blatant sexual harassment by her boss.

She sued the state and won $340,000 in damages and attorney fees. The state appealed and lost. Since then, her claim has grown to $640,000 with interest. And yet the state still hasn't paid.

King's case is one of more than 900 claims worth $13.2 million that the state has refused to pay the past four years, even though legislators acknowledge they are legitimate. One key lawmaker said it just hasn't been a budget priority. But the amount is growing as more claims come in and court judgments gather interest.

"It appears the state of Texas can get by with something normal people can't," King told the Houston Chronicle.

"We have chosen not to pay," said Rep. Jim Pitts, who leads the House's budget-writing committee.

Another creditor is the city of Bryan, owed $273,000 for utility work it provided for the state in 1999.

"We could always utilize that kind of money," said city finance director Kathy Davidson. "Anybody else, we would have cut off. They would be in the dark, literally."

The chief executive of the Texas Industries for the Blind & Handicapped, which sells equipment and services to Texas, said he can't recall not getting paid by the state.

"We [usually] get paid right away," Lyndal Remmert said. "We haven't gone through two sessions without the appropriation. That's a problem. Unless they appropriate those dollars, there's no way to get paid."

Up until 2001, the Legislature routinely created a catchall spending measure, called the miscellaneous claims bill. Claims deemed legitimate that were more than $25,000 or more than four years old were listed in the bill.

In addition, court judgments that exceeded $250,000, usually involving discrimination or harassment suits filed by state employees, had to be approved by the Legislature.

"We haven't had the miscellaneous claims bill go anywhere in the past two sessions," said Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican. "It was one of those things. The priority has been to balance our budget. Then it was education. So it hasn't been one of our high priorities."

Pitts said the Legislature is exercising its discretion. But he plans to create a special panel during next year's regular session to examine the miscellaneous claims and recommend action.

Despite recent budget woes, lawmakers are now deciding what to do with a surplus of about $8.2 billion.

Some lawmakers were aggravated by the unpaid claims.

"This is a terrible example," said Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio.

Rep. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, agreed.

"I'm amazed we have [so many claims] and we don't pay people. I just can't believe that," he said. "If we lost, we lost. We owe somebody money."

In King's case, Pitts is sponsoring a separate bill during the current special session to satisfy her claim, but it has yet to be considered by the full House and Senate.

Austin attorney Paul Matula also has a client who has won a final judgment in a sexual harassment case amounting to $400,000 against the state. It has earned $22,000 in interest, which continues to accrue at $55 a day.

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