Sunday, December 18, 2011

N.Y. congressional freshmen frugal on office budgets

From Elmira Star Gazette

WASHINGTON -- Five House freshmen from New York are on track to return money from their personal office budgets to the Treasury at the end of the year -- and boost their public images as advocates of fiscal restraint.
But the lawmakers vary on whether they'll play Santa this year and dole out year-end bonuses to their staffs.
The five -- Reps. Tom Reed of Corning; Ann Marie Buerkle of Onondaga; Nan Hayworth of Bedford, Westchester County; Chris Gibson of Kinderhook; and Richard Hanna of Oneida County -- had spent no more than 64 percent of their office budgets as of Sept. 30.
Buerkle, the most frugal of the five, said she expects to return about 10 percent of her office budget to the Treasury. She had spent 59.6 percent of her $1,404,731 budget as of Sept. 30.
She doesn't plan on giving year-end bonuses to staffers.
"It's consistent with us asking the American people to just tighten their belts," Buerkle said.
"I think that's a good message. At least that's consistent to what we're saying about cutting spending."
Reed and Hayworth are considering the possibility of staff bonuses.

Reed spent 61.1 percent of his $1,402,057 budget in the first nine months of the year.
"If there's money left over, my intention would be to give that back to the Treasury," he said.
"And on the pace we are now, I think we are going to have an opportunity to do that."
Reed said he hasn't decided whether to give his staff bonuses.
Hayworth spent 60.3 percent of her $1,422,135 office budget during the same time period.
"If our staff has provided extraordinary value for taxpayer money, in my best prudential judgment, I might reward very hard-working staffers who are working at a low salary," Hayworth said.
"But I am painfully aware again of the fact that these are taxpayer dollars. So it will be a very thoughtful process and not one any of us takes lightly.
"We would like to set an example for responsible use of what we are painfully aware is taxpayer dollars," she said, noting that she pays out of her own pocket for snacks and meals for staffers.
Hanna, former owner of a construction company, said he will give each staff member a $500 year-end bonus and return leftover office budget money to the Treasury.
Through Sept. 30, he had spent 63.6 percent of his $1,422,470 budget.
Gibson, who spent 62.8 percent of his $1,433,722 budget, hasn't decided exactly what he'll do with any leftover money.
"We are going to be giving money back, but in terms of the specifics of what we do, we haven't decided," he said.
"I suspect at the end of the year we will be 7-to-8 percent lower than my predecessor (former Democratic Rep. Scott Murphy)."
New York's lone freshman Democrat, Kathy Hochul, has been more frugal with her office expenses than her Republican colleagues.
That's largely because she took a few months to fully staff her office.
Sworn in June 1 to fill an open seat in western New York's 26th Congressional District, Hochul spent only 30 percent of her $824,849 office budget through Sept. 30. She plans to return part of her budget to the Treasury.
"We kept our staffing levels low over the summer and we didn't really staff up until the fall," Hochul said.
"We are just trying to find the best way to save the taxpayer dollars."
Hochul received a smaller prorated budget than the approximately $1.4 million most House members received for the full year for district office leases, staff salaries, mailings to constituents, office equipment, travel reimbursements and other expenses.
Each of the 435 House members receives slightly different budgets, depending on the local cost of office leases, the number of addresses in a congressional district where official mail is sent and the distance of congressional districts from Washington.
Lawmakers who represent districts in California or Hawaii, for example, receive more than $1.5 million.
The Republicans who took control of the House in January voted to cut congressional office budgets by 5 percent, and individual lawmakers' budgets reflect that.
The fiscal 2012 budget deal that House and Senate negotiators announced Thursday night calls for cutting office budgets another 6.4 percent, according to Ryan Nickel, spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
Overall spending on legislative operations is being cut 5.2 percent, according to Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for committee Republicans.
Lawmakers have leeway in deciding how many district offices they open, how much to pay their staffs and how many mailings to send to constituents.
Reed spent $56,000 on travel in the first nine months of the year.
That's not much more than Hanna's $48,762, but it's four times as much as the $12,021 Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of the Bronx spent in his densely populated district covering the north Bronx and parts of Westchester and Rockland counties.
On the other hand, Engel spent $107,745 on rent for his district offices, the offices' utility bills and communications in the pricey New York City metropolitan area.
Reed spent only $58,673 on those expenses in the more rural Southern Tier.
Reed and Hanna each spent more than $60,000 on mailings to constituents, while veteran Democratic Reps. Louise Slaughter of Fairport, Brian Higgins of Buffalo, Maurice Hinchey of Ulster County, and Engel of the Bronx each spent less than $3,000.
Hanna said the mailings are important because he's a new member of Congress.
"My sense is that it's important for people to know early who they elected, how they are performing and where they stand," Hanna said.
"Over time people will know that better. And I look forward to doing it less over time."
Hayworth, who spent $52,401 on mailings, offered a similar justification.
"Part of that is that the district needs to get know me as their representative, needs to know what we can do for them," she said.

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