Many of the purchases seem small: office supplies, postage, and magazine subscriptions. But the Texas Senate nonetheless burned through nearly $16 million in the last fiscal year — from Sept. 1, 2008, to Aug. 31, 2009 — on routine administrative and travel expenses.
That’s an average of more than $500,000 per senator for the 31-member body, though purchases of individual members’ can vary widely, according to records from the office of the Secretary of the Senate, which tracks the spending. Overall spending by individual senators ranged from $206,000, by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, to more than $637,000, by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. In addition to Ellis, the biggest spenders include Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano.
Huffman's spending only covered a nine-month period, however, because she didn't serve a full fiscal year in office. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, was in a similar position: She was the second-lowest spender, but she too didn't serve for a full year. The thriftiest of the senators who spent throughout the fiscal year was Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who spent about $445,000. Other comparatively frugal spenders include Sens. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, and Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.
Based on the needs of their districts, from geography to the makeup of their constituents to what they think they need to run an office, senators can spend taxpayer money as they please — but within certain restrictions, such as limits on how many periodical subscriptions they can buy. Some senators run up high printing charges or spend money on large quantities of bulk mail to constituents; others set up multiple district offices.
Postage spending varied the most. Huffman spent the least on postage: $504. Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, spent the most: $59,724.
It’s not a free-for-all, though. At the beginning of each legislative session, senators collectively allot themselves a maximum that they can spend on staff salaries and travel. Last session, it was $37,500 a month, or $450,000 for the year, to be disbursed as they see fit. Some senators in far-flung districts have complained the equal allotment puts them at a disadvantage in serving constituents compared with say, Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson, who represents Austin.
Senators must get approval for each expenditure from Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw, though it’s no rubber stamp. For instance, Spaw says, new senators each session, without fail, make requests for BlackBerrys for their staff — a request always denied.
Other restrictions include limiting senators to sending one newsletter a month and no more than 5,000 mail pieces at a time on one topic.
“The senators are actually pretty frugal. It may not seem that way,” Spaw says. “This is a huge state with lots of people in it. It takes a lot to represent these folks. They are pretty conscious of their spending.”
In general, senators’ total spending tends to even out differences in various categories, Spaw said. Ellis’ high spending owes to his communication and operations costs, said Brandon Dudley, his chief of staff. His boss spent much of that money on voter outreach and on one of his district offices in a high-rent area of downtown Houston.
A few years ago, Ellis began sending TeleTown Hall voice messages to members of his district. Each call, which sends a recording of legislative actions that will affect his district, costs about $1,200 to $1,500. The calls can reach about 50,000 people, Dudley said.
“The senator is proud that he makes a high number of outreach efforts compared to other senators,” Dudley said.
Ellis spent more on operations, including office rent, than any other senator: $97,102. Shapleigh came closest, but he still spent $26,000 less than his Houston colleague.
The Senate puts no limit on the number of district offices a senator can have, so long as the rent doesn’t exceed the going rate in the geographic region. Many senators who have large districts have up to three offices. Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, for instance, has three offices in the largest geographical senate district, which covers 55,000 square miles and spans a 23-county area stretching from San Antonio to El Paso. Ellis also has three offices in a comparatively smaller district.
Watson’s Austin district presents a different set of issues. Because his Capitol office acts as a year-round district office, he said he spends his money on his staff. While many senators increase their staffs only during legislative sessions, Watson is able to keep a large contingent at the Capitol full time because his district office is located in Austin. “I just don’t spend as much [overall] because of the nature of my district, but I don’t tend to have people drop off the payroll as much,” he says.
Watson spent the most of his colleagues on service charges, which includes membership and conference fees. He says that because he employs several lawyers, the Senate pays their bar dues.
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, ranked highest in supply spending, which includes consumable office supplies, furniture, the clipping service and subscriptions.
Zaffirini says it is remarkable how little she spends overall for supplies. Senators are limited to subscriptions to two statewide newspapers and can subscribe to any papers in their district. Zaffirini's district includes 17 counties and 25 newspapers. She said she also subscribes to the Austin American-Statesman and The Dallas Morning News.
"We senators are frugal spenders for such a huge state, especially when you consider the people and the size of our districts," she said.