Topeka When it comes to paying legislative staff, legislative leaders have a lot of leeway.
The leadership offices approve a set amount of money for salaries, and within that amount they decide how many people they want to hire, how much to pay them, and whether to give bonuses.
The pay issue arose last week after the Lawrence Journal-World reported one-time payments given to several House Republican leadership staff members, including $20,000 to Brent Haden as he started work at his $90,000 per year position as chief of staff to House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson.
This was in the context of an austere state budget year that has produced cuts in social services, education and health programs, and a proposal from House Republican leaders to cut the pay of state employees as part of the solution to balance the budget. That employee pay cut proposal eventually was abandoned.
House GOP leadership officials maintain they have been responsible stewards of tax dollars, saying that because of salary decreases in other areas, they are spending less this year than last year.
‘They did a great job’
According to a review of legislative leadership records for the past several years, one-time payments to House and Senate leadership staff members are not unusual.
For example, after former House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, was defeated by O’Neal to be speaker in December, he approved a $15,000 payment to his chief of staff Michelle Butler, and $10,000 to his communications director Sherriene Jones-Sontag.
“They did a great job for the Legislature and people of Kansas,” Neufeld said.
Jones-Sontag said the payment was part of what she had negotiated with Neufeld. Butler also said that leadership staffers work long hours and are not paid overtime. “Also, as a leadership staffer, certain risks are involved as they serve at the will of the employing member and are not guaranteed their position from year to year,” Butler said.
Derrick Sontag, who is now director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, received a $7,500 one-time payment in November 2006 from then-departing speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka.
Sontag said it was part of a total package that had been negotiated with Mays.
Senate President Steve Morris’ chief of staff Michael White receives $87,500 per year. He received a pay rate adjustment of $5,000 in May 2008 and $2,000 in December 2008.
White said, “The Senate President’s Office has taken positive steps to reflect current economic realities. Our budget has been cut over 5 percent, full-time staff has been reduced, and no raises or bonuses will be given this year.”
Some employees leaving leadership offices also receive large final checks that may include compensation for extra time worked, officials said.
“Generally, when a person leaves a leadership office, they have accumulated leave built up,” said Jeffrey Russell, director of Legislative Administrative Services. “It isn’t necessarily all just a bonus,” he said.
‘Based on performance’
State Treasurer Dennis McKinney, a Democrat, gave bonuses to his employees at the end of last year as he was leaving his position as the leader of the House Democratic caucus. He said he had done this in previous years too, and it wasn’t because he was leaving the legislative office.
His employees received bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $1,500.
The bonuses, he said, were based on performance and because his employees’ salaries were lower than those of other legislative staff.
“I always sat down with Jeff Russell ahead of time to make sure that we had the capacity to do it (pay bonuses),” McKinney said. “They put in a lot more hours than what was required, and it was based on performance,” he said.
Chief of staff salaries
When state Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, was elected House Democratic Leader, he hired Craig Grant to be his chief of staff at $65,000 per year. But of that amount, Davis said he pays $5,000 from his campaign funds.
Other top staff of legislators and their salaries include Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley’s chief of staff, Tim Graham, $80,000; and House Majority Leader Ray Merrick’s chief of staff, Peter Freund, $73,000. During the current budget crisis, there have been no bonuses in Hensley’s office; Freund received a pay rate adjustment of $2,308 in December.
Jane Carter, director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the public needs to be made aware of bonuses in light of attempts to cut state employee pay.
By many measurements, state employees in Kansas are among the bottom states in pay and benefits. A recent legislative report found that a third of the state employee workforce is significantly underpaid when their jobs are compared with the private sector.
“It was a vicious session,” she said of attempts by House GOP leaders to cut state employee pay or establish a furlough program.