May 08, 2008
The Speaker wars have begun

Last Friday the Statesman wrote a story about Capitol employees who earn a part-time wage but are listed as full-time and receive the same health insurance and pension benefits as full-time employees.

Capitol insiders say that hiring employees as full-time workers while paying them part-time salaries is a longstanding practice at the Legislature, a way to get benefits for workers who otherwise would not qualify for them.

It costs taxpayers a minimum of $284 a month for health insurance for a full-time worker, according to calculations from the Employees Retirement System of Texas. And it costs much more to pay higher retirement benefits that the additional years of service can bring.

Even so, some lawmakers argue that the practice is legal and that any questions about it are off-base. Under House rules, each lawmaker is allowed to hire whom they want on whatever schedule they want. Thirty-three of the House's approximately 700 employees make less than $600 a month -- the amount lawmakers earn, according to House payroll records for February.

House Speaker Tom Craddick said he has ordered the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee and the state attorney general to look into the practice. Last week, subpoenas went to House officials for personnel records as part of a preliminary investigation by the Travis County district attorney's office.

"If some legislators are paying employees with taxpayer dollars who are performing little or no work, that is an egregious misuse of state money," Craddick said in a statement to the American-Statesman. "It must be stopped immediately and with full restitution made."

Lawmakers who have made such hires defend them, saying it is difficult to hire good workers for a part-time Legislature, which meets only five months every other year. Furthermore, they said, they have limited budgets with which to hire professional staff.

"That was part of the discussion when I hired him," Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, said of his deal with Zbranek. " 'I can't pay you too much. It's just $300 a month. The insurance and benefits make up a little more.' "

At least one lawmaker chalked up the inquiries to House politics, a charge Craddick's office denies.

Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who hired Fazio, challenged Craddick's leadership a year ago as part of a power play that continues now with several announced candidates to unseat him. The issues concerning the employees are likely to fuel that dispute.

"If there's a target here, it's me because of the issues I've had with the leadership," Cook said, referring to Craddick. " This is generated by one source and one source only, and that has to have come in a whisper from the speaker's office.

"I have nothing to hide."

Other lawmakers said the blame rests with House administration officials.

"If there was anything wrong ... the House Administration Committee should have told me. They review everything we do," said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who has three full-time, low-paid workers on his staff, including Wise. Dunnam also said he hired former state Rep. Dale Tillery in a similar case several years ago.

But Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Administration Committee, which oversees personnel issues, said lawmakers -- not his committee or House officials -- are responsible for running their offices according to state rules.

"That's up to them," he said. "That's the way the rules are written at present."

In case it's not clear from this excerpt, all of the lawmakers cited for this practice are opponents of House Speaker Tom Craddick, whose letter to the Statesman led to the article. This has, not surprisingly, caused a huge fight to break out. Phillip Martin, who worked as a House staffer in 2007, gives some context:

1. There's nothing illegal or unethical about any of this. All hires of House employees are public record. The Speaker's office -- though they deny it -- receives copies of each and every one of these hires. This practice has been long-standing and well understood; for Craddick to feign surprise is total crap.

2. There's nothing fiscally irresponsible about any of this. The $284 monthly cost of paying for health benefits for these hires doesn't amount to squat in the face of a $10-billion surplus. And considering that the children of state employees -- including Craddick's own daughter -- also receive health benefits, then I don't see any monetary significance to this alleged "revelation."

3. Craddick is responsible for the oversight of all House employees. Moreover, the Speaker ultimately oversees the office of House Administration -- at least, if he wants to claim responsibility that Denise Davis was an employee of the Speaker's office, then the same thing applies to the employees in the Payroll and Personnel department of House Administration. Either Craddick is responsible for this, or he's not. Or, he's just a political hypocrite waging war because...I don't even know why.

4. Staffers are paid meager wages. Like all state employees (except State Senate staffers), House staffers barely get paid what they deserve. They accept 50-70% of their "market value" in order to help serve the people of Texas, and part-time workers will accept even less. Craddick and Mike Ward may have cherry-picked some admittedly extreme examples, but there are dozens more who are hard-working, barely getting-by staffers just trying to help out. Waging war on them is going to backfire.

The obviously political nature of Craddick's actions is laid out clearly by Harvey Kronberg:

In his press release on May 2, General Investigating Committee Chairman Larry Phillips said, "On April 7, 2008, Speaker Tom Craddick's office notified the House General & Investigating Committee..."

Three weeks later, the Speaker's office apparently formally notified the three members referred to the General Investigating Committee of their problem with an Austin American Statesman story by Mike Ward.

The speaker's office apparently elected to ignore the more traditional House practice of notifying members about possible improprieties and offering the members an opportunity to cure any problems. Instead, these "issues" that Phillips knew about in early April went public in a May news story along with referrals to the Travis County District Attorney's office.

We have asked the Speaker's office if they can cite any precedent where House resources were used by a Speaker to publicly damage sitting House members. Development of this story required co-ordination between the House Business Office, House Accounting and possibly even the Legislature's law firm, the Legislative Council.

Kronberg got a reply that didn't actually address the question, which he subsequently published. He continues:

It appears that Chairman Goolsby has also taken some liberties with "part time" employees.

For instance, lobbyist Jennifer Shelley Rodriguez appears as a full time employee on Goolsby's Monthly Financial Statement from January to March of 2004. In January and February, her full time status earned her $500 a month. In March, she pulled down only $326.09. Rodriguez, the daughter of former Senator and current lobbyist Dan Shelley appears to have been a registered lobbyist in 2004 with at least 14 clients.

Again, according to the Monthly Financial Statement received by each House member, another full time employee making $500/month was Jennifer Fein. She held this status from September 2005 to January 2006.

In 2003, before SB1370 was passed, Goolsby had Eric Goldberg as a full time $500 month employee from January 20, 2003 to May 10 of the same year.

And finally, Ernest Stromberger, former executive director of Independent Insurance Agents of America shows up for 20 hours a week from December 2, 2002 to January 8, 2003.

We identified these issues and requested comment from Goolsby but had received none as of press time.

The point is not that Tony Goolsby did anything malevolent. The point is that if the chair of House Administration did not know he was acting improperly according to the Speaker's standards, it is silly to presume that members submitting their vouchers to him for approval would know they were doing anything improper.

Frankly, it is doubtful whether most of Mr. Craddick's leadership team can survive the same coordinated scrutiny directed towards Dunnam, Eiland, Cook and Coleman. If their cases are to be referred to the General Investigating Committee and the Travis County District Attorney, then so should Goolsby and other names that are already finding their way to this observer.

The Lone Star Project has more on Goolsby's part-time-pay, full-time-benefit hires, and QR has a letter from Eiland to Goolsby that asks some pointed questions. For instance:

Among myriad other issues, he pointed out that no mechanism is in place to log workers' hours and with their bosses, i.e. the lawmakers, often away from the Capitol, Eiland wondered how staffers' hours would be verified. Would staffers be forced to punch a time clock or swipe a badge when they enter the Capitol parking garage, he asked? How was lunch to be treated?

Another problem is that Capitol staffers often have uneven work demands throughout the year, Eiland wrote. During session, staffers often rack up well more than 40 hours a week. Would enforcement of a 40-hour week extend to creating a comp time system to account for the overtime accrued, he asked?

So anyway. Consider this all to be the opening salvos of the 2009 fight over the Speakership. If you thought 2007 was ugly, just wait. And as always, if you want to have an effect on the outcome of the Speaker's race, please consider donating to TexBlog PAC. Thanks very much.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 08, 2008 to That's our Lege