State senators seem to be bending pay rulesBut lawmakers say briefly raising staff salary is not giving a bonus
By MATT STILES
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 5, 2008
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.
The practice, defended by senators interviewed by the Chronicle as a way to manage budgets and retain staff, is allowed by Senate administrators because members have latitude over their office coffers.
Similar pay increases are banned across the Capitol in the Texas House, where most salaries are capped at $4,017 a month, to avoid the appearance that members are violating Article III, Section 44 of the state constitution. It says the Legislature shall not grant "extra compensation to any officer, agent, servant, or public contractors, after such public service shall have been performed."
The policy and procedure manual in the House states: "Increasing a salary for one month is, technically, a legal method of granting a 'bonus,' but is clearly a means of attempting to accomplish indirectly what the constitution prohibits the legislature from accomplishing directly."
Free of that prohibition, most senators have granted at least one temporary pay increase that could be interpreted as a "bonus."
The payments are not categorized by state payroll codes as bonuses, but, rather, are masked as temporary salary increases — several more than $10,000 extra a month.
"While most Senate staff deserve better compensation, raising their pay scale for a single month can only be considered a 'bonus,' which is prohibited under the law," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based watchdog group.
Some examples found by the Chronicle:
•State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, twice increased a senior aide's regular $7,400 monthly salary by $4,000 in both July and August of 2007. The Chronicle found more than 20 instances of temporary pay increases to staffers in his office since 2007, totaling more than $50,000.
•State Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, doubled a senior aide's $7,000 salary in August 2007, the last month of the fiscal year, and reduced it to $7,600 for subsequent months. Another aide saw a $5,000 temporary increase the same month, while two others received $4,500 extra.
•Other members of the regional delegation, including Republicans Dan Patrick and Tommy Williams and Democrat Mario Gallegos, followed the practice, to varying degrees.
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 Whitmire's criminal justice committee.
Like Whitmire, Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said her staffers' salaries are kept a bit lower than she would like to account for contingencies.
She said this year she increased staffers' pay for three months as the fiscal year ended when it became clear her annual budget could support it.
The three staffers went back to regular monthly pay rates in September.
"It's not really a bonus," Van de Putte said. "In effect, it looks like one."
She also praised her staff, saying she would like to compensate them more.
"It's a cash-management tool," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who increased two staffers' pay by $5,000 each in August.
Patrick, who paid $5,000 extra to a top aide at the end of the 2007 fiscal year, said he prides himself on keeping his expenditures lower than most.
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.
Others senators, defending the practice, reject the word "bonus."
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, whose chief aide received an extra $15,000 as fiscal 2007 ended, prefers the term "supplemental payment."
"I've got the best staff in the history of the Texas Senate," he said. "I try to hire them young, work them hard, and get them to stay around and serve this district as long as possible."
The constitutionality of the practice has proved subjective.
Pre-authorized plans OK
The Texas Attorney General's Office, for example, has interpreted a similar passage in the constitution to mean that municipal and county employees are not eligible for bonus pay without pre-authorized compensation plans.
Houston police mechanics, for example, work under an incentive plan in which they can receive extra pay if they make vehicle repairs at speeds faster than the industry standard.
Houston City Council came under scrutiny in 2006 when the Harris County District Attorney's Office asked City Controller Annise Parker to audit city incentive payments. A subsequent report suggested that thousands of dollars in one-time payments to council employees were improper, and the city implemented new restrictions.
But the Attorney General's Office has not issued a formal opinion with respect to lawmakers' staffers. And Whitmire, the longest-serving member of the Senate, said he does not think asking for one is necessary.
"I don't like to ask questions about things I already know the answer to," he said. "I certainly don't have colleagues that perceive it as a problem."