October 06, 2008
State Senate staffer salaries

I suppose I have the same objections to this story about the don't-call-them-bonuses that get paid to State Senate staffers at the end of the fiscal year as I did to this this earlier story about City Council expenditures.

State senators may be violating a Texas Constitution ban on using taxpayer money for bonuses to government workers by approving temporary end-of-year raises to give staffers thousands of dollars in extra pay.

In the last two years, state senators have given senior staffers scores of temporary pay increases, effectively issuing bonuses totaling more than $650,000, according to state payroll data analyzed by the Houston Chronicle.

The records, obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, show a clear pattern in many Senate offices in which salaries are inflated as the end of the state's fiscal year approaches, only to be reduced a month or two later.


Senators, who receive $37,000 a month to run their offices and hire staff, offered similar explanations for the extra pay. They argued that their employees work long hours, often at salaries lower than in comparable private-sector positions. The money, they said, can persuade experienced staffers to stay in the Legislature, offering continuity for constituents.

Some said they keep salaries lower throughout the year to avoid going over budget should they need more staff to tackle a problem. Such an instance occurred in the middle of the last session, when abuse allegations at the Texas Youth Commission prompted an unplanned investigation by [Sen. John] Whitmire's criminal justice committee.


Any leftovers from those office budgets at the end of a fiscal year go back into a broader Senate pool, a fact that some say prompts members to spend, said Peggy Venable, Texas director with Americans for Prosperity, a grass-roots group for fiscal conservatives.

"We, as taxpayers, would like to think that if they are prudent and careful with their expenditures, and at the end of the year there is money left over, that it should go back into the general fund," she said.

I'll reiterate my earlier point about the appearance of frugality in office budgeting not necessarily being a virtue, and will note that the amount we're talking about here is even tinier relative to the state budget. Given the Comptroller's estimate (PDF) of $83 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2008-09, we're talking less than one ten-thousandth - that's less than 0.01% - of the pie. Calling it "chump change" would be an overbid.

And again, I don't know what the color of the sky is on Peggy Venable's planet, but here on Earth, this sort of practice is completely normal in the business world. And hell, even by her own logic, if the money would have gone back into the general fund, it most likely would have been spent on something else. So what difference would it make?

Now to be sure, the honest thing to do here is to change the law to allow for this practice, instead of finding creative ways to work around the prohibition. That would require a constitutional amendment, which is no small hurdle to clear. It would also surely be fanatically opposed by the likes of Perry Venable, for whom her ideology is more important than practical reality. Given that, I can't say I blame anyone for choosing this approach. But it would be more honest to change the law.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 06, 2008 to That's our Lege
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