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Lawmakers facing curbs on individual spending


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POSTED: Sunday, September 13, 2009
                       
This story has been corrected. See below.

With expenditures of $27.8 million in fiscal 2007, Hawaii is running one of the nation's priciest state legislative operations.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Hawaii's Legislature is the fourth-most expensive in the country on a per-capita basis—$21.67 per person.

Alaska has the most expensive legislature, with a per capita cost of $56.40, while the least expensive was Ohio, with a per capita cost of just $2.75.

The expenses cover staff salaries and travel costs for neighbor island legislators. There's also a $10,200 spending allowance per lawmaker, which totals $775,200 annually.

Although the details on the spending are public record and available upon request, the information is not easy to find.

The state Legislature has no program similar to the City Council that posts office expenses and trip costs online for easy public review.

               

     

 

SPENDING ALLOWANCES FOR LEGISLATORS

Taxpayers pay legislators a per diem, travel expenses and a $10,200 allowance, and cover salaries for their staffs. Members of the state House get one full-time staff member, and senators get two. Lawmakers make their own rules on how much they can spend.

       

The $10,200 allowance is not considered pay and is not taxed, but legislators can use it for anything connected with their duties, from sending out newsletters to paying for meals for constituents. They are not allowed to use it for campaign purposes.

       

The Legislature's two money committees, Ways and Means in the Senate and Finance in the House, have large staffs and employ larger full-time staffs to monitor the changes in the state budget.

       

These charts show how much each legislator has spent so far this year.

       

 

       

;  ;  House and Senate leaders say there has never been a push to make the information accessible, although veteran Democratic Sen. Les Ihara said he routinely introduces legislation to make the Legislature's expenses available via the Internet.

“;Providing information definitely helps shed light and allows the public greater access to information,”; said Nikki Love, coordinator for Common Cause Hawaii, a citizen government reform group.

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa said putting the information online would be brought up at a Democratic caucus, but noted “;we haven't thought about it.”;

Lawmakers are thinking about cutting their budget, but legislative leaders say they will wait until the conclusion of public worker negotiations before deciding how much to cut this year.

Last week, Gov. Linda Lingle asked lawmakers and the state courts last week to cut expenses by 14 percent, the same budget cut she is seeking from public employees in collective-bargaining talks.

Last year, Lingle asked for a 10 percent reduction in legislative expenses, and lawmakers agreed.

One cost that has risen over the years is the personal allowance for lawmakers. At one time it was $5,000, then it went up to $7,500, and is now at $10,200 per lawmaker, although starting this year legislators must now pay for travel out of the allowance.

Only one lawmaker, Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai), rejected the allowance, saying he either does without or pays for expenses out of his own pocket.

“;I don't take any of the special perks we get. I don't even ride in the private elevator,”; Slom said.

House Speaker Calvin Say and Hanabusa, however, urge colleagues to take the entire amount and use it to communicate with constituents.

Sen. J. Kalani English, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, used almost all of his allowance for rental car expenses and fuel to travel on Molokai and Lanai.

Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa-Honouliuli-Ewa Beach) spent $3,556 to travel to Kuwait to visit Hawaii National Guard troops during their deployment.

Neighbor island lawmakers are also given $150 a day for room and board during the legislative session, an amount paid for the full seven days a week, even if they travel home on weekends, because it is expected that lawmakers have rented a place in Honolulu for the entire session.

Neighbor island legislators also get one round trip home a week.

Oahu legislators can collect $10 per diem per day for legislative business, but Pat Mau-Shimizu, House clerk, said most members forgo it because of all the paperwork involved in filing for the allowance.

Say noted that most legislators have stopped paying their cell phone bills with their legislative allowances.

A federal tax ruling warned that unless the entire use of the phone was for business, the reimbursement had to be reported as income, and Say said lawmakers did not want to provide the detailed reports necessary.

A review of records shows most purchases are mundane, such as plastic forks and chopsticks for the office. But Sen. Joshua Green (D, Milolii-Waimea) paid $1,910 for a chair, ottoman, table, stool and microwave for his office.

“;It is up to each senator to determine their own expenditures,”; Hanabusa said.

Say said after he became speaker in 2001, he clamped down on the use of allowances for country club memberships.

“;We said we would narrow it because it is taxpayer dollars, and if it is a fee or membership in an organization that you have to be in as a legislator, you can use your legislative allowance, but for the Chamber of Commerce or your country club—use campaign funds or your personal funds,”; Say explained.

Say added that he also cut back on the past practice of using state supplies and printing for thousands of copies of documents.

“;We had to talk to them—it is difficult policing your own colleagues. ... I am trying to do this to protect their own rear end,”; Say said.

Taxpayers also pay for legislative staff, with House members allowed to hire one person and senators two.

In past years, Democrats were allowed more staff than the minority Republicans.

GOP leaders Sen. Fred Hemmings and Rep. Lynn Finnegan agree that the current Democratic leadership has spread out office staffing fairly. At one time, House Democrats got $4,500 a month for staffing, while the GOP received just $1,600.

But both Hemmings and Finnegan say the GOP suffers from a smaller budget for their research offices.

“;Our staff winds up doing double duty because we only have three members in research, but we still have to do research and prepare to vote on the same number of bills, just like the majority,”; Hemmings said.

In the Senate, Hanabusa said each of the 24 senators is allotted $6,930 a month for staff. As Senate President, Hanabusa has four staff members.

“;We are cutting the budget, so I took no additional staff for the session,”; Hanabusa said.



               

     

 

CORRECTION

       

Sept. 15, 2009

       

State Sen. Will Espero did not go to Kuwait to visit Hawaii National Guard soldiers. Espero canceled the trip and returned the travel allowance to the state. Also, the above chart had incorrect allowances and total expenses for eight senators. A corrected chart is below.

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