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Parting bonuses ‘taxpayer-funded wet kiss goodbye’

Area lawmakers in Washington spiked their staffs’ pay at the end of 2012, often by more than $10,000 a person, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of congressional pay data.

The most generous bosses were defeated and retiring lawmakers on their way out the door, including U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek, as well as Republican Steve Latourette and Democrat Betty Sutton, both from northeast Ohio.

Austria’s personnel budget increased by 64 percent in the final months of 2012. LaTourette’s staff budget soared 74 percent and Sutton’s 54 percent. This is a comparison of the fourth quarter to the average of the first three quarters of 2012.

Pay for U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt of Loveland went up 15 percent at the end of the year before she left office — it spiked most in the third quarter after she lost a Republican primary. Her staff cost ended the year more than $100,000 higher than in 2011.

These pay increases came while Congress was locked in a stalemate over the budget crisis known as the “fiscal cliff.”

End-of-year bonuses for congressional staff are “pretty common,” according to Steve Ellis, vice president of the anti-tax group Taxpayers For Common Sense.

“When a lawmaker is departing and it’s sort of a taxpayer-funded wet kiss goodbye, that is a little bit more disconcerting,” he said.

Austria said that part of the cost increase came from staff members cashing out accrued leave. Plus, he said, the cost of shutting down his three offices without cutting down on services to the public increased his staff costs in the last few months of the year.

“We continued to provide excellent constituent service to the eight counties in the Seventh Congressional District all the way to the end of the year,” Austria said. “(My staff) had an increase in responsibilities in closing down the offices. Many of my staff members worked overtime, many of them worked evenings and weekends and I compensated them fairly with the responsibilities they incurred.”

The biggest bonus Austria handed out at the end of 2012 tripled the quarterly pay of Staff Assistant Donald Tate with an extra $18,000. Austria said this was because he went from full-time to part-time. Tate was one of 10 staffers whose pay in the fourth quarter was $10,000 or more higher than in the third.

Sutton gave the biggest pay hike. Records indicate staffer Anthony Baker went from a senior policy advisor making about $5,000 a quarter to also serving as press secretary and picking up an extra $22,834 in the final quarter. A dozen other workers in her office and LaTourette’s office got an extra $10,000 or more at year’s end.

Office budget cuts mounting

Every member of Congress gets an office budget of between $1.3 million and $1.8 million with broad discretion on how much to spend on salary, travel and other office costs. That budget has been cut 13 percent since 2010, and will go down another 8.2 percent this year because of sequestration.

Whatever isn’t spent is handed back to the Treasury.

Dennis Kucinich — who lost his Cleveland-area district in the Democratric primary — Schmidt and current U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, all spent 97 percent of their budgets. Austria spent 96 percent and Dayton Republican Rep. Mike Turner 94 percent.

Ellis said this presents a peek into each lawmaker’s true feelings on handling public money, especially when they’re leaving and no longer accountable to voters.

“Certainly there is this desire of lawmakers, particularly those who lost but also those retiring, of taking care of their staff and making sure they have some sort of bonus for sticking with them,” Ellis said. “All that said, this isn’t their money. In the end this is the taxpayers’ money.”

Jordan most frugal on Hill

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, ran the second-lowest-spending office in Congress in 2012. The only office to spend less was vacant for much of the year. He gave back more than $480,000 — or 37 percent of his budget — to the Treasury.

“Because I have been fighting so hard to balance the federal budget and get spending under control, I think it is important to lead by example,” Jordan said in a statement. “You can provide good public service while being respectful of taxpayers’ money, and I think our actions prove that.”

Jordan’s payroll did jump 16 percent at the end of 2012, but still ended $217,957 less than in 2011, the newspaper’s analysis found.

U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., has been steadily decreasing his payroll for two years. His office was the only one in this newspaper’s analysis to decrease at the end of 2012; it went down 4 percent. He keeps a separate budget for his role as Speaker of the House.

Turner office budget up

The overall payroll for fellow incumbent Turner ended the year higher than anyone but Kucinich’s in this analysis. It included a 25-percent spike in the fourth quarter.

“Congressman Turner typically pays his staff less and if his staff meets internal goals we do bonuses,” said office Spokesman Thomas Crosson.

Turner’s payroll costs for 2012 were driven up by the hiring of Chief of Staff Adam Howard, who was the highest-paid staffer at $152,765.

“In 2011 we were not fully staffed,” Crosson said. “There were months we did not have a chief of staff, or legislative director or office director.”

GOP more giving than Dems

A recent analysis of congressional office spending by the website LegiStorm found nine of the 10 biggest end-of-year-bonus benefactors came from Republican lawmakers, though retired New York Democrat Rep. Gary Ackerman was the most generous of all.

LegiStorm, like this newspaper, compared the fourth-quarter salary payments to an average of the first three quarters of 2012. Comparable numbers are not available from the U.S. Senate.

LegiStorm reported that Republican staffers saw a 16-percent bump in pay, on average, compared to 15 percent for Democrats. Overall bonuses were well above the amount handed out in 2011 but the lowest post-election bonus round in at least a decade.

“Election years tend to see larger bonus numbers, as departing members reward staff who will soon be looking for new jobs,” said an analysis published by LegiStorm Diretor of Operations Daimon Eklund. “The party losing more members tends to have higher bonuses.”

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