As coronavirus hits Texas, the state’s top health chief is spending 30 hours a week on a second job — that pays $600,000

Texas lags behind other states in coronavirus testing
Texas lags behind other states in coronavirus testing

TXDOT chief Phil Wilson at an Aug. 29, 2013 board meeting in Austin. Wilson has been tapped to lead the Lower Colorado River Authority. Bob Daemmrich

The acting head of Texas’ massive health and human services bureaucracy, who is leading a 36,600 employee agency during a global pandemic, is also working a second job as the well-paid general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, a quasi-state agency — funded without state tax dollars — that provides water and electricity to more than a million Texans.

And despite temporarily heading one of Texas’ largest and most high-profile agencies, Acting Executive Commissioner Phil Wilson is not on state payroll — instead, continuing to earn $636,694 from the river authority, more than double what the previous health commissioner made.

Political scientists say it’s an atypical arrangement at an atypical time — one that let the governor tap an experienced and well-respected person during a crisis, without asking Wilson to take a pay cut and leave a plum river authority position. They also raised questions about how sustainable it is to have the state’s top health official holding a separate management position at the same time.

“There are only so many hours in a day and if somebody's splitting their work product between two employers, something could fall through the cracks,” said University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus. “HHSC is the biggest agency in the state, and would seem to require a full time, dedicated employee to run it … I'm surprised that either agency is comfortable with this arrangement.”

Wilson, a longtime fixture in Texas government circles, has straddled both organizations since March, when coronavirus cases started ticking up in Texas. He is working seven days a week and approximately 50 hours for the health commission, and at least 30 hours for the river authority, said spokespeople for both organizations.

Wilson explained how he’s balancing the two roles in a written statement.

“Both organizations have outstanding leadership in place and my job is to provide clear direction and vision for each, then let my teams perform their respective duties,” he said. “It’s also to make sure the full measure of each team’s experience, expertise and knowledge is brought to bear to ensure each decision I make is in the best interests of the people LCRA and HHSC serve every day.”