By Kristen M. Daum
After several years of cutting, state House lawmakers have given themselves
a little more money to spend this year.
The reason: Republican leaders think the state’s finances have improved enough to
justify adding $1.2 million for House staff salaries and office operations this year.
As House speaker, Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, sets the chamber’s calendar-year office budgets for party leaders, rank-and-file members and the Republican and Democratic caucus offices.
Overall, they’ll have $14.7 million in taxpayer money to spend in 2013, up from at least $13.5 million last year, according to a Lansing State Journal analysis of House finances.
Bolger spokesman Ari Adler said the increase comes after several years of “strict budgeting and cost containment efforts” that put the House in “a better position financially to be able to restore some of the previously reduced funding.”
Adler noted the 2013 figures for rank-and-file members are still far below the six-figure budgets they had 10 years ago.
The minimum office budget for this year is $81,500. The specific allotments escalate from there, depending on a member’s partisan affiliation and his or her status in leadership.
Bolger found the money for this year’s increase from two sources: $520,000 in unused office budget money from 2012 and additional unspent dollars that were left in the Legislature’s annual appropriation, Adler said.
Office budgets do not include lawmakers’ salaries or benefit packages for them or their staff.
Although Republicans hold the checkbook, Democrats got the better end of the deal in this year’s increases, finances show.
Overall, Democrats have an extra $748,000 to spend this year, compared to the Republicans’ cumulative increase of $448,000.
Katie Carey, spokeswoman for the House Democratic caucus, said the final figures are the result of several discussions between Bolger and Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills.
“With the Democratic caucus picking up more seats, we wanted to level the playing field and add equality to the office budgets,” Carey said.
In the November election, Democrats picked up five seats, changing Republicans’ majority from 64-46 in 2012 to
59-51 this year.
“We’d always prefer more,” Carey said referring to office funding, “but we’re to a point of where we’re better than where we started.”
Carey and Adler said the Democrats’ higher budgets were not evidence of any concession by Republicans, thought by some to have been made to ensure Bolger’s smooth re-election to the speaker post earlier this month.
On the ceremonial first day of session Jan. 9, Democratic support for Bolger was uncertain right up until the vote.
Ultimately, only two Democrats defected and Bolger was re-elected by a 107-2 vote.
At the time, Bolger said the Democratic votes supporting him “weren’t contingent” on any agreements, but the acknowledged Republicans “did make some accommodations” in terms of the Democrats’ office budgets for the year.
In talking about the 2013 budget figures, Adler and Carey said the House leaders had regular discussions — before and since the speaker vote — to discuss business operations.
“Leader Greimel always comes to these negotiations with the idea that in the overall legislative budget, there should be mutual respect and mutual equality,” Carey said.
Historically, the party in power receives the greatest proportion of the office budgets, which is why Republicans still hold the greater share of the overall dollars in 2013.
Adler said that reflects the extra work those lawmakers have to do in setting and executing the legislative agenda.
“It’s the logistics of being in the majority,” he said. “The speaker’s office has more to do than the minority leader’s office.”
Some boosts higher
Office budgets for House leaders rose 5 percent over the year, putting Bolger’s office allotment, in particular, at close to $500,000.
The biggest increase among leadership came in the budget for the House Appropriations Committee chairman. It’s 23 percent — or $32,200 — higher than in 2012.
“It was determined that we may have been cutting too much there,” Adler said in explaining the increase.
He said the change puts that office budget back at levels close to 2009, when Democrats held the majority in the House.
The Appropriations Committee chairman — for 2013-14, Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland — is responsible for assembling the state budget every year and coordinating 18 appropriations subcommittees, which oversee funding for specific state departments.
“We remain committed to fiscal responsibility, which is why the funding for this office was restored only to a point,” Haveman said. “We spent the past two years making state government more efficient, and now we’re using the fruits of that labor to beef up our legislative customer service and help the people we are elected to serve even more.”
In general, rank-and-file Republicans got more than an 8 percent increase over 2012, boosting their office budgets from $80,100 to $87,000. Democrats got a 5 percent increase from $77,620 to $81,500.
Carey said the increased allotment for Democrats will help them to better hire staff of comparable quality as Republican lawmakers can afford.
“You want to have that quality and that institutional knowledge in your office,” Carey said.
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OFFICE BUDGETS: WHAT ARE THEY?
» State representatives can use their designated office budgets to hire staff members and pay for basic operations, like newsletters, postage, copying costs or supplies.
» Rank-and-file lawmakers typically hire two aides each, while members of leadership can afford to hire more.
» Office budgets do not include lawmakers’ salaries or benefits packages for them or their staff.
» Each representative in the 110-member House gets an office budget, but there are also pools of money to fund what’s called “central staff.” The Republican and Democratic caucuses each staff central offices, which help coordinate communications, policy initiatives and constituent relations for members. House Republican spokesman Ari Adler and House Democratic spokeswoman Katie Carey are examples of central staff.