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Legislators ranked by spending

  A final word -- for now -- on how much State Senate and Assembly members spend on their office operations.

  The Empire Center for New York State Policy did a ranking for the six-month period ending March 31 of this year. Here's a summary of the findings, but you really need to review the list ranking individual lawmakers.

  What the center found is that our million dollar man, Dale Volker, only ranked No. 15 among senators. The rest of the Republican senators from Western New York ranked in the middle of the pack, starting with George Maziarz at No. 31 -- smack dab in the middle. Our local Dems ranked near the bottom in office spending. That's what being in the minority will get you.

  In the Assembly, Robin Schimminger's spending was the third-highest of the 150 members. He'll tell you that's in line with his seniority -- he's tied for third with Shelly Silver. Sam Hoyt ranks 36th, Bill Parment 62nd. Everyone else's spending is below average, although in a Legislature that spends more than $200 million a year, that's not necessarily a compliment.

The Legislature's image machine

Something to contemplate in the face of news the state is now facing a $12.5 billion deficit next year ...

Many state Senators, and some Assembly members, have a press spokesman on their office staff. In addition, the Senate spent $1 million last budget year to employ 15 in its central press offices, and another 20 people and $1.3 million in something called the "Senate Communications/Director's Office." The boss, John McArdle, made $180,000 last year. Plus a state car.

That's just the beginning.

MegaphoneBoth chambers operate a variety of "communication" services. They employ web site designers, graphic artists, photographers, television producers, event coordinators and the like.

The Senate employs no fewer than seven photographers, including four full-timers, who make up to $42,600. I can't imagine there's enough work to keep them busy during the session, much less the other seven or eight months of the year.

The Assembly, not to be undone, has a "Radio/TV and Photography" department. Two of them, actually, one for the Democrats, another for the Republicans. They employ only one photographer, but 26 other people, at a cost of $1.5 million last budget year. Among the job titles: Reporter.

I think not.

Add up all the assorted PR functions and you have 87.5 jobs and $5.3 million in spending on the Senate side and 106.5 jobs and $5.5 million in the Assembly.

But wait, there's more.

We've also got mail and printing services, which produce and mail newsletters for legislators among a wider range of activities. The Senate operation employed 55.5 workers last year and spent $5.4 million. The Assembly had a staff of 66 and spent $8 million.

This indirect spending, not included in the expenses allocated to individual legislators, averages up to $155,000 per senator and $90,000 per Assembly member. It's little wonder why more than 95 percent of incumbents win re-election.

Lawyering for the Legislature

There are a lot of ways to look at the State Legislature's spending. One way: as an employment agency for lawyers.

Forget about how many of the lawmakers themselves are attorneys. I'm talking about those they hire.

Three_stooges Senate and Assembly Expenditure Reports are formatted in a way to discourage tracking of job titles -- among other things. My review of reports for the budget year that ended March 31 shows we have more lawyers on the Senate payroll than we have senators.

Start with the 19 who work for the attorney's office that serves Republicans. There there's the nine who work for the Democrats. Plus the support staff, 25 alone for just the GOP, and the bill for legal services last year for the Senate was $4.1 million.

But we're just getting warmed up.

Senators have another 42 on their personal staffs, some part-time, but mostly full-time. Dean Skelos, then the deputy majority leader, now leader of the pack, was especially fond of lawyers, having a full-timer on staff at $80,000 and three part-timers. Dale Volker had the best-paid staff attorney, making just a tad over $100,000.

At least another three lawyers were scattered elsewhere on the Senate payroll.

Grand total: 73.

On the Assembly side, I counted 40, mostly full-timers, working on assorted committees and departments alone.

Between the two houses, at least three lawyers made more than State Supreme Court judges, whose annual salary of $136,700 hasn't been raised by the Legislature in nearly a decade. Michael Avella, the Senate's top-paid lawyer last budget year, made $180,000. He'd have to take a slight pay cut to be governor.

What do all these lawyers do? I mean, besides election law during the campaign season.

Well, I guess they draft a lot of bills. Two studies done a few years back by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School found that no state legislature proposes more bills. In 2005, our guys introduced no fewer than 15,099 bills.

Of course, only 5 percent of them make it into law, one of the lowest passage rates in the nation and much lower than the national average of 28 percent. Then again, without these dead-on-arrival bills to announce, what would the army of spokesmen hired by the Legislature do with their time?

Depressed? Take a minute - 59 seconds, to be exact - to watch Dewey, Cheatem & Howe in action.

Better paid than his counterpart in the U.S. Senate

When corporate executives want to dodge a question, they sometimes get cute by saying "that's beyond my pay grade."

As the highest-paid employee of the State Legislature, Steven Boggess can't use that line.

Boggess, secretary of the Senate, made -- are you ready? --  $190,000 during the last budget year.

The governor, by contrast made, $179,000.

The secretary of the United States Senate, meanwhile, made $163,700.

Gee, who has the bigger job?

Boggess_2I don't know much about Boggess, other than he's the fellow who rejected my Freedom of Information request a while back seeking an electronic version of Senate expenditure reports. Boggess told me the reports did not exist in an electronic format, only in hard copy. About the same time, the Senate sent the reports, in an electronic format, to the folks who operate SeeThroughNY.

Curious as to what else he does beyond keeping public records out of the hands of reporters, I called the Senate press office Monday seeking a phone interview with Boggess. I figure with the Senate in recess, he'd have time to talk. I was wrong.

"He doesn't have time at this point to do media interviews. He's busy with other things," said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the majority, aka Republican, press office.

Gee, a week before the election, which involves the Republicans trying to hang onto their
one-seat majority, I can't image there is much government work going on in the Senate.

I asked a couple of Albany types, smart people in the know, what Boggess does. I got some puzzled answers. Maybe he manages the Senate floor, oversees the staff, stuff like that. I'm told he has a very nice office, just off the Senate chambers.

His chief qualification for the job appears to be as a longtime crony of former Senate
Majority Leader Joe Bruno. Worked on his staff for, like, forever, before getting selected for
the secretary's job.

Boggess heads up an operation that cost taxpayers $500,294 last budget year, most of it in salaries. He has two executive assistants, both making a little over $60,000. Then there are two deputy executive assistants, who between them pulled down $100,000. And an administrative assistant who made just shy of $37,000. And a couple of part timers.

There's speculation that Boggess may not be long for the job. He's no doubt a goner if the Democrats gain control of the Senate. And if the GOP hangs on, there's no assurance that Dean Skelos keeps him on -- after all, he's a Bruno guy.

Fear not for Boggess, however. Imagine the state pension he's in line for.

New NYPA boss saying the right things

I've been writing about the New York Power Authority for a couple of years now, and time and time again, the muckety-mucks there have responded to criticism of the authority's management of the Niagara Power Project by saying the plant is a state, not local asset.

In other words: "Too bad if you don't like it."

Kessel_new Along comes Richard Kessel, who took over NYPA's top job a couple of weeks ago, and, boy, is he singing a different tune.

He doesn't come right out and agree with folks like Brian Higgins, who have been screaming about how we're getting short-changed. But he certainly sees, shall we say, "room for improvement."

Kessel spent Thursday and Friday tooling around Buffalo Niagara, meeting and greeting pols,  business leaders and ink-stained wretches like me.

"I have to tell you, based on everything I've seen here the past couple of days, more can be done to help Western New York and upstate," he said.

True, dat.

Kessel came across as affable, engaging and energetic, and I'll admit to being pleasantly surprised by what he had to say. That there smarter uses for the low-cost hydropower allocated to local industry, that more of the money generated at the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston ought to remain here.

All this is a clear departure from what has been emanating for HQ in White Plains.

Before anyone gets carried away, let's remember that the decisions necessary to bring about change are not Kessel's alone to make, and that his words notwithstanding, he's going to be pushed and pulled in a lot of different directions by folks who historically have not been sympathetic to WNY. In addition, the governor and Legislature have a lot to say about what happens at NYPA.

You can bet that Kessel, Paterson and the Legislature will be lobbied by current power recipients and some of their buddies in the business community, who will try to spook them with the prospect of job losses if they mess with the status quo.

That is a potent argument in this community, which suffers from a mindset of "Hold on to what we have, no matter the cost." In this case, it's about $200 million of discounts a year that don't get enough bang for the buck. We're squandering the best economic development tool at our disposal.

This community's "circle the wagons" mentality is one reason why we keep missing the wave of economic growth that most of the rest of the country has enjoyed. We've got leaders with their eyes fixated on the rear-view mirror.

Kessel said his marching orders from Gov. David A. Paterson include doing more for WNY and the North Country, home of the authority's two major generation plants. Kessel said he won't be shy about making recommendations to Paterson and the Legislature towards that end. In that regard, Kessel is willing to wade in where his predecessors have not. And unlike most of them, he seems to have political moxie.

Kessel strikes me as eager to please. He's very aware of both NYPA's bad reputation in WNY and concerns about him as a downstater with an uneven track record as boss of the Long Island Power Authority.

"I want to dispel the notion I'm just a political guy put in by Paterson," he said. "Give me a chance."

It will take time, and action, for Kessel to prove his sincerity and mettle. But coming out of the box, he's saying the right things and reaching out to people here in a way his predecessors never did.

More on our free spending state legislators

My story in Thursday's News detailed how state legislators spend big money to operate their offices. That's just the half of it.

Legislators also also spend considerable sums for central operations, some of it for legit purposes such as staffing committees, some of it aimed at garnering favorable publicity for themselves.

Many senators, and some Assembly members, have a press spokesman on their office staff. In
addition, the Senate spent $1 million last budget year to employ 15 in its central press office.

And, both chambers also operate a variety of "communication" services. They employ web site designers, graphic artists, photographers, television producers, event coordinators and the like.

Coupled with central press operations, these services involved 87.5 jobs and $5.3 million in spending on the Senate side and 106.5 jobs and $5.5 million in the Assembly, according to News calculations.

Then there are mail and printing services, which produce and mail newsletters for legislators among a wider range of activities. The Senate operation employed 55.5 workers last year and spent $5.4 million. The Assembly had a staff of 66 and spent $8 million.

This kind of spending is one of the reasons why the Legislature spends more than $200 million a year on itself. The Empire Center For New York State Policy found spending averaged $973,900 per member in 2005, vs. a national average of $347,667.

The story behind the story on legislative expenses

My story in today's paper on how the state Legislature spends your tax dollars has its roots in a piece I did nearly three years ago. I was looking into whether Steve Casey ran Byron Brown's mayoral campaign on state time. Brown was a senator at the time and Casey worked on his staff. I tried to get payroll records, but the Legislature has exempted itself from providing them under the state freedom of Information Law.

Nice, huh?

Instead of giving me the records I requested, the Legislature sent me copies of something called "Expenditure Reports." They're published every six months and detail how each legislator, and all the assorted committees, spend our money.

I looked at the reports and, while realizing they did nothing to help me with the Casey story, thought they would make for a good story down the road. Earlier this year I submitted another FOI request to the Legislature, asking for the records in an electronic format. I wanted them in spreadsheet format so I could do assorted calculations, rankings, etc.

Senate Secretary Steven Boggess claimed the records didn't exist in electronic format, even though it was obvious that the Expenditure Reports were little more than printouts of spreadsheets. I went back and forth with his office, to no avail. At the same time, however, the Senate turned over the data that was not in an electronic format to the Empire Center For Policy -- in an electronic format.

Nice, huh?

The Assembly, meanwhile, did send me an electronic version, but it was in such a tortured format that the data was next-to-impossible to use. It did the same thing to the Empire Center For Policy, the folks who operate SeeThroughNY, which had to hire a computer programmer to spend 60 hours making sense of the jumbled data.

Nice, huh?

My original intention had been to track the spending of all 212 legislators. But between the delays caused by the intransigence of the Legislature, other stories I was working on and the time consumed by writing daily posts to feed the blog monster, I realized a month ago that time was running out. If I was going to write something in time for the general election, I had to get cracking. That meant narrowing my scope to the 19 members of our local delegation and creating my own spreadsheets by inputting the necessary data.

Glamorous work, it wasn't. But I learned as I inputted. Among other things, how the Legislature makes readers work really hard to make sense of the reports. There are no summary tables that lay out the big picture, for example. Something, say, that listed total spending by each legislator. Nope. Readers have to do the math on their own. Lots of it.

Nice, huh?

Want to know how much Senate and Assembly members earn between their base salary and stipends? There's no total. You have to add 'em up. Want to know how much they spend on their staff? Add all the individual salaries up, which, in the case of folks like Dale Volker, involves a lot of people. And the figures reflect salaries only, not the cost of benefits, which are considerable.

Want to know the sum of lines and lines of travel and per diem expenses? Add 'em up. Want to know how much members spent on newsletters, one of the ways legislators spend tax dollars to promote themselves through the mail? The Senate book told you. Sometimes. The Assembly report did not tell you. Ever.

Nice, huh?

Apparently, the software that produced the Assembly reports had a flaw (he said with tongue in cheek). It didn't produce any commas in the spending figures. An example: the spending for, say, the Program and Counsel Staff for the latest reporting period read 2858477.46. Or $2,858,477.46 if you use commas.

Nice, huh?

For all my beefing, I've really got no complaint. It's my job to wade though this kind of stuff. But you, dear reader, dear taxpayer, you've got every right to be peeved. Because you have no way of getting at the Expenditure Reports unless (1) you know they exist and (2) you know how to use the FOI Law to wrest them loose from the bureaucrats in Albany.

You'd think, in this day and age, the records would be posted online. You'd be wrong. No, the Web sites maintained by the Senate and Assembly consist largely of material aimed at boosting the image of legislators. Press releases. Flattering bios. All done at taxpayer expense, of course.

Nice, huh?

In the coming days I'll delve into more details I found in the reports. There's lots to be outraged about.

Incumbents need not apply

I'm back, at least for a spell, hopefully longer, after a couple of week hiatus, having just about wrapped up a piece on how much of our money the State Legislature spends. It's a lot.

There's one local state senator who is dropping nearly $1 million a year on his office and staff. Our local Congressmen aren't spending much more. One local Assemblyman is dropping twice as much money per voter as Higgins and company. Who has the bigger job?

The story should run later this week.

In the meantime, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle has taken the unusual step of refusing to endorse any Senate and Assembly incumbents in its circulation area. Some of them also serve districts in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls region.

Says the D&C:

Last month, when members of the Editorial Board started meeting with candidates for the State Legislature, the intent was to endorse in each State Senate and Assembly race. However, after five straight weeks of interviews with nearly 20 Albany candidates, we've changed our minds.

In good conscience, we cannot support any of the incumbents because of their failure to consistently push for radical change in Albany.

Indeed, few candidates for the Legislature anywhere in the state are talking up reform. Not in spending, economic development programs or the costly, undemocratic manner in which the Legislature operates.

Yeah, there's some rhetoric about reform here and there, which is especially amusing when it comes from incumbents who are the architects of the current state of affairs. But there's been little said in the way of substance, by challengers or incumbents.

I'm thinking of one candidate in particular who has been running ads telling voters he's one of us, that he'll work hard to bring jobs to Western New York. Blah-blah-blah. To quote John Lennon in Revolution, "We'd all love to see the plan." We're still waiting on Hillary's 200,000 jobs.

Now for this musical break.

Back to my pending story. Just to whet your appetite, did you know the state Senate has more stipends for members than it has members? Nice work if you can get it.

Stay tuned.

Frequency of posts on this blog

My blog postings are going to be hit and miss for the next little while. I'm working on some time-sensitive stories and need to devote my time to completing them.

Cities in green and Brown

The differing approaches in Buffalo and Niagara Falls in reaction to spiraling energy costs and other ramifications of climate change can be boiled down to this:

When I called Paul Dyster to talk about what Niagara Falls is doing, the mayor invited me up for what turned out to be a detailed, and ultimately exhausting, two-hour interview in which I finally had to plead "no mas." The man knows his stuff, and talks not in sound bites, not in sentences, but in complete paragraphs. Several at a time.

Don't believe me? Here's a video of a speech Dyster gave this summer to Business Gets Green.

Mayor Byron Brown, on the other hand, doesn't want to talk about what he is doing -- and not doing -- in Buffalo. Not with me. And not with some prominent greens like Walter Simpson who have tried to get an audience with him.

As a result of its mayor's respective attitudes, Niagara Falls has landed a plant to produce silicon used to make solar panels, while Buffalo is, well, washing the halls of City Hall with less abrasive cleaning solutions.

In addition to my story in Sunday's Buffalo News, I've complied links to additional resources for those of you who want to know more.

Let's start with Sam Magavern's report done with some of his U.B. law students for the Partnership for the Public Good, entitled "Greening Buffalo: What Local Governments Can Do." Magavern presents an abbreviated version of the recommendations in this story he wrote for Artvoice.

To learn with other cities are doing, start with the one-page action plan developed by the the Climate protection Center of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Magavern says Cincinnati's action plan is particularly relevant to a city like Buffalo.

Popsci.com has ranked the nation's 50 greenest cities, although probably fewer than 20 really deserve kudos. Another outfit has done a readable narrative on the greenest of the green cities.

Newsweek has reported on a study by the Brookings Institute on how metropolitan regions can reduce their carbon footprint.

Finally, Gristmill is in the midst of reporting on what 15 regions across the nation are doing on the green front.

Read on.

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