Monday, June 13, 2011

Arizona Congressional Payrolls, Part 2: Outgoings' Swell Payroll Expenses; Numbers May Put Them In "Unfairly Unfavorable Light"

In preparing last week's report on the payrolls for each of Arizona's 8 Representatives in Congress, I noted some seeming aberrations.  Though I had not yet had time to investigate them further, I noted a couple of days ago that the website which posts the payroll information (among other important data) had also seen the red flags.  Their response was to pen an article (OK, "type a post") which details which departing Representatives "splurged" on their staff as they were leaving. 

It turns out that two of Arizona's three departing Representatives are near the top of the list.  Former Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-CD1) and Harry Mitchell (D-CD5) both listed more than $100,000 in payroll expenses in the last two days of their terms.  ($105,294 and $120,790, respectively) 

Digging a bit deeper, I quickly discovered that it is not as clear a picture as it first appeared.  Each Representative gets a fixed amount to spend on their office expenses (including salaries), and none of them receive exactly the same amount (at least in Arizona).  The amount of the "Member's Representational Allowance" ("MRA") varies based upon the distance of the district to D.C., the size of the district, the cost of living there, etc.; the national range for a Representative's budget is currently between $1.3 and $1.9;  Arizona's is between $1,445,393 (Pastor) and $1,565,655 (Franks).  There is no standard procedure for all House members to follow in how to hire staff, how to structure their compensation packages (vacation, sick time, etc.).  Monies are authorized based upon the legislative year (Jan. 3 - Jan. 2, which explains why the expenses are shown through Jan. 2) while they are funded in separate budgets based upon the fiscal year (Oct. 1 - Sept. 30); this makes it even harder to wade through the disbursement reports to figure out whether a Representative spent all of the funds at his or her disposal.

Put another way, Reps. Mitchell and Kirkpatrick could have structured their offices and compensation packages to pay employees at the back end while other Representatives (John Shadegg was the third Arizona Congressperson to leave office at the beginning of this year, and he only had one significant expenditure for January 2 - a $4,000 payment to one district aide) may have compensated employees more upfront, or paid out untaken vacations earlier in the year.

The real key is how much of their annual office budgets the Representatives return at the end of the year.  Or, even more accurately, how much they have returned at the end of their service in Congress.  Because, Representatives do not actually return unused monies to the United States Treasury at the end of the fiscal (or legislative) year(s), they have two subsequent years in which those monies can be used.  (Although, apparently, unused Kirkpatrick monies - if any - do not become available to Paul Gosar, her successor.)

The House does not make it easy to find out which Congresspersons have returned parts of their office budgets to the Treasury.  Both Kirkpatrick (through campaign spokesman)and Mitchell have purportedly returned monies to the Treasury from their budgets.  Mitchell's former Chief of Staff, Alexis Tameron, told Arizona's Politics on Friday that...
"..while funds were used in part to payout unused vacation, sick and other accrued compensatory benefits accrued by staff, all MRA expenditures including those referenced by Legistorm are a matter of public record and can be verified by the Clerk of the House. This includes the hundreds of thousands dollars in unspent funds allotted to Rep. Mitchell's office that had been returned to the Treasury each year over the course of his time in Congress." (italics added)
Arizona's Politics is attempting to obtain  from the House of Representative the data that would confirm or refute those claims (as well as comparative data for other Representatives' offices).

But, there is very clear data that the Legistorm (and the Arizona Republic article that was published on Saturday while this report was being prepared) headlines and numbers might be misleading - despite the disclaimers - is by looking at additional payroll numbers for the three Arizona Representatives who left office on January 2.  Shadegg's 2010 (calendar year) payroll expenses totaled $1,120,707, far more than either Kirkpatrick ($886,856) or Mitchell ($979,058) for the same period.  INCLUDING the first two days of 2011, Shadegg had spent $528,066 more than Kirkpatrick on payroll during their entire two-year term, and a quarter of a million dollars more than Mitchell.

This reminds me of an article I wrote two months ago. Rep. Ben Quayle (R-CD3) was written up on another non-partisan website as having the worst attendance record in the House for the firsts couple of months of this term.  While the numbers showed that he had missed an alarming 22% of the House's votes, it turned out that Quayle had missed a Friday-Saturday debate on current year federal spending, and there were lots of votes on amendments to skew the percentage.  We labeled that an "unfairly unfavorable light".  Without more complete information about how much each Representative's office spends of its budget, it is premature to judge about "splurging". 

When we are able to present the amounts that were RETURNED by each Representative to the United States Treasury, we will. 

We welcome your comments about this post. Or, if you have something unrelated on your mind, please e-mail to info-at-arizonaspolitics-dot-com. Thanks.

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