The Cost of Doing Business
With many areas of state government looking for savings to help bridge a mammoth deficit in next year’s budget, the General Assembly is asking for an increase on the amount it spends on itself: currently more than $42 million a year. This week Jim Hummel takes a closer look at the numbers, talks with House Speaker Mattiello about what taxpayers are getting for their money - and travels north to see how much New Hampshire spends on its own legislature.
Click here to see the list of General Assembly Personnel.
Click here for RI General Law 36-12 on Insurance Benefits for State Employees.
Heading into the homestretch of this year’s session, the General Assembly has some particularly tough budget decisions to make after tax revenues came in under expectation.
While some other areas of state government are holding the line, Rhode Island’s part-time legislature is seeking $44.5 million to spend on itself next year, up 3 percent from what was budgeted this year and more than 20 percent from what was budgeted just four years ago, although some unspent money has been carried over from year-to- year.
Mattiello: ``And the trend is that it’s becoming more and more full-time as time goes on.’’
In a wide-ranging interview this week, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello defended the Assembly’s burgeoning budget.
Mattiello: ``We’re very, very connected with our constituents and we have to provide them services and I believe that the public’s expectation of government services, especially from their legislation has increased considerably in the past few years.’’
Hummel: ``$42 million, $43 million sounds like an awful lot to be running a part-time General Assembly.’’
Mattiello: ``Yes, but it’s a very complicated operation, we have a television station within the General Assembly, we have the auditor general, two fiscal staffs, one for the House and one for the Senate. Our IT people are top -notch. It takes a lot to put on the operations that we put on, on behalf of our citizens and we need the resources to do that appropriately.’’
So what do you get for $44 million?
The legislators themselves account for just shy of $4 million in salary and benefits.
And the Aditor General’s office accounts also account for just under $4 million.
Capitol TV, which now televises many hearings in addition to House and Senate sessions, has a budget of more than $1.6 million
And the Legislative Council - the research and legal arm of the Assembly accounts for about $5.1 million.
It is the cost of those who work in these divisions and the rest of the Assembly’s 278 employees that accounts for $17.5 million in salary and benefits alone. The workforce includes 219 full-time employees and 59 part-timers.
So how does Rhode Island compare?
We went last week to Concord to take a closer look at New Hampshire’s General Court, as it’s called. While not an apples-to-apples comparison, the states are similar in population and New Hampshire has two-thirds of Rhode Island’s overall budget: $6 billion a year in New Hampshire to $9 billion annually in Rhode Island.
But spending on the legislature differs greatly: At $18 million a year, the New Hampshire General Court’s entire annual budget is about 40 percent of what Rhode Island’s General Assembly spends on itself.
Granted, the New Hampshire House - at 400 members - and the Senate, at 20, are de facto volunteer positions. The elected members each receive $100 per year plus travel reimbursement that totals just over $1 million. But none receives medical benefits as Rhode Island lawmakers are eligible to do.
New Hampshire’s legislature employs only 155 people, 24 of them part-time. And unlike Rhode Island, they have to work full-time hours to received medical benefits. More on that in a moment.
We found that the Rhode Island General Assembly has 13 full-time and 38 part-time attorneys. Part-time legal counsel work primarily during the session and many got their jobs through political connections.
New Hampshire has eight full-time attorneys and no part-timers, even during its six-month session.
Mattiello: ``Every one of our committees has a part-time lawyer assigned to them, so you start adding up all the committees on the House and Senate side and look how many lawyers we have and you’re probably going to get there. And we have some supervisory attorneys to keep an eye on everybody. On average I think that’s how you’re going to get to the number.’’
But here’s what you might not know: every one of those part-time attorneys receives the same medical benefits as a full-time employee. Of the 38 lawyers, 27 are taking full family plans - at an average cost of more than $20,000 a year with varying co-pays; 8 have individual plans at a cost of more than $7,000/year with varying co-pays and three take a waiver, meaning the state gives them $1,000 for not taking medical benefits.
That means some part-time legal counsel are receiving almost as much in medical benefit as they are in salary.
Hummel: ``They get full-time benefits and I wonder what you feel about a lawyer who may be making $21,000, $22,000, $23,000 part-time but he’s also entitled, and many of them take it, full-time family medical. And that’s costing the state another $20,000, $21,000. What about that?’’
Mattiello: ``What we do as a General Assembly relative to personnel rules is we follow whatever the state rules are.’’
That’s right, state law allows them to do it, as it does all state employees: full-time benefits for a 20-hour-or-more work week.
Morgan: ``Spending $41 million for a legislature that’s only here six months out of the year, I think we can find efficiencies here.’’
House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan says the legislature could begin by looking in the mirror.
Morgan: ``What we do in this building is serious work, and we need staff to support it. We can’t do it all ourselves, it’s a part-time legislature. On the other hand, when we spend money wastefully seriously, it’s not there to repair schools, it’s not there to maybe do some technology upgrade in another department. It’s not there to stop tolls.’’
Hummel: ``As a matter of policy, what do you think about that? For somebody who’s working 20 hours a week to be entitled to full family medical.’’
Morgan: ``I think we need to put our feet in the shoes of what average Rhode Islanders are facing. They don’t get those kind of benefits. If we’re going to offer them in order to get personnel in here, then we need to do it less frequently, perhaps. We need to make sure the positions we’re getting are ones we really need and that every single one of them gives value to taxpayers.’’
And while the next couple of weeks will be a busy time for everyone working under the Dome, what about the off-season, where part-time employees are supposed to be working at least 20 hours a week to be entitled to those medical benefits?
Hummel: ``I think a lot of people are wondering about those part-time employees. What are they doing in July, August, September, October, November and December?’’
Mattiello: ``Clearly there’s a lot more work going on while we’re in session, that’s just the reality of the situation. But a lot of those employees are really called upon and they end up doing a lot more work during our busy season than their 21 hours per week, so they accumulate comp time; so in the summers they lay foundations for January, they do a lot of the prep work, they do whatever else is asked for them, and there’s always projects going on here and they take their comp and vacation time.’’
We also wondered why the General Assembly has consistently budgeted for 298 full-time equivalent employees (called FTEs) when the reality is - when you combine the part-time and full-time employees there are only 254 FTEs - 44 fewer positions than are written into the budget.
Hummel: ``If you were looking for savings, isn’t that something that on paper you could immediately say, well look we’re carrying only the equivalent of 250, 274, whatever that you could immediately save 10, 20 people on the budget. Why do you carry that many people in the budget?’’
Mattiello: ``We could, and maybe we’ll in fact look at that. FTEs are carried all throughout state government and that’s an area I’m actually starting to look at. We’re going to start cutting out a lot of FTEs that are not currently filled. The theory on leaving them on the books, if they’re unfilled, is you ever have the need, you can hire the person without waiting until the next budget cycle.’’
The governor adjusted the General Assembly’s’ request this year downward by about $200,000. Morgan says the leadership may need to take a larger bite to help balance the state’s budget and look top-to-bottom about who is employed by the legislature.
Morgan: ``Once you have somebody on board you like them, they’re nice people, you don’t want to get rid of them. And yet, that’s not our job to bring our friends in here, right? ``It really is to make sure every person in this building, is fulfilling their job, that’s important to the people of Rhode Island. Right? That they do something that adds value to our job here, that they’re not just here because of who they know.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report