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AUSTIN—The U.S. Department of Justice has questioned how Gov. Greg Abbott's hiring freeze could affect Texas institutions for people with intellectual disabilities.

Justice Department officials say potential staffing shortages could cause Texas to violate its federal agreement to improve the facilities, the Austin American-Statesman reported Saturday.

Abbott, faced with a budget crisis, on Jan. 31 ordered a state agency hiring freeze through August to free up about $200 million for the current fiscal year. The directive applies only to agencies under Abbott's office and allows exemptions. The freeze does not apply to position with direct influence on public safety.

The Justice Department, in a Feb. 7 response, said Texas supported living centers, or SSLCs, already have serious problems with turnover. Failure to fill jobs would put the facilities "on course to rapidly reach crisis levels of understaffing," the letter said.

"Thus the freeze threatens the basic health and safety of the people in the SSLCs' care and, of course, potentially places the state in breach of its court-ordered commitments in this case," Justice Department lawyer Benjamin O. Tayloe Jr. wrote.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has a filed waiver request with Abbott's office.

"Providing safe, quality care at our state hospitals and SSLCs is our top priority, and we'll continue to work with the governor's office to ensure we take the best possible care of our patients," commission spokeswoman Carrie Williams said.

Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the governor's office has already been working to make sure the living centers aren't negatively affected by the hiring freeze.

"The Justice Department's letter clearly misunderstands the governor's directive on the hiring freeze," Wittman said. "The directive exempts from the hiring freeze 'positions that have a direct impact on public safety.' Safety obviously includes the well-being of patients and those being treated by state supported living centers."

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