This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
Texas taxpayers pay the salaries of the legislative staffers who work for Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. Since 2006, Watson has added to those salaries with some $440,000 from his campaign contributors.
“I want to attract and retain high-quality people,” Watson said. “It also allows me to hire additional staff.”
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate spend thousands of dollars each year from their campaign accounts to supplement the salaries of staff members who work in their district and Capitol offices. It’s a legal and long-standing practice in the Texas Legislature that lawmakers say is the only way they can provide competitive salaries and hire enough staff to do the work required to represent their constituents. But some ethics experts say the salary supplements present the potential for undue influence from special interests — or at least the appearance of it — on staff members and the lawmakers whose paychecks depend on their largess.
“It’s just another way in which the lobby runs the Capitol,” said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “They provide the lawmakers with walking around money and staff support.”
Each legislative session, the House and Senate decide how much money legislators will be allotted to run their offices — to pay for staff and travel around the massive state — from the state’s two-year budget. At the beginning of the current legislative session, senators allotted themselves $38,000 per month, a raise from the $35,600 they previously received. House members, whose districts are smaller, decided they would do with just $13,250 each month, still a bump up from the $11,925 monthly allotment in the previous two-year cycle.
How the legislators divvy up those funds to run their offices is left to them. But that’s all the money they receive to pay for lawyers, policy advisers, communications staff and administrators who help them draft legislation, prepare press releases, conduct and attend meetings in Texas and across the country, and deal with thousands of constituents and lobbyists who bring their myriad concerns to the lawmakers’ offices.
“They can manage that how they want,” said Patsy Spaw, secretary of the Senate.
How senators use their funds varies widely, Spaw said. For instance, the range of salaries for a chief of staff in that chamber starts at $4,416 per month and tops out at $10,417 monthly.
Watson said the amount senators get from the state is hardly enough to provide effective service for the more than 800,000 Texans each of the 31 senators represent. If he were to rely only on the money he gets from the state, Watson said, he would be forced to hire fewer people and pay them a pittance.
“They want to serve. They obviously have a heart of service,” Watson said of his staff. “They could be establishing private sector careers that might be paying them more money.”
There’s no question there might be less fraught ways to pay legislative staff that wouldn’t raise questions about the influence of lobbyists and other campaign donors, Watson said. But for him, it comes down to a choice between providing fewer services for his constituents and dipping into his campaign funds to do a better job for the people he represents.
While he understands the concerns some might have about conflicts of interest, Watson said that’s not a problem in his office.
“The concern is not a true concern in my office, but it’s a legitimate consideration and one that the senator, in this case, finds himself having to balance,” Watson said.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said that although it is difficult to stretch the small amount of dollars she receives from the state, she does not supplement her staff’s salaries with campaign money. She prefers, she said, to keep campaign and state office expenditures separated. She asks staff members for a commitment to work two sessions. And she maintains low expenses, she said, by traveling as cheaply as possible within a sprawling district that stretches from Laredo to Austin. Often, she said, her staff members travel by bus, because it’s the least expensive option.
“We try to find ways to do things more efficiently,” she said, adding, “I pay the best salary I can, but only within my budget.”
State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said lawmakers in the lower chamber not only compete with the private sector when it comes to staff pay. They also compete with the Senate. That’s one of the reasons, he said, that the chamber decided to increase the representatives’ office operations allowance this year.
“A lot of us supplement the salaries of our staff in order to keep them,” Geren said.
Geren, a longtime legislator and chairman of the House Administration Committee, called the notion that paying Capitol staff from campaign accounts could present ethical conflicts “silly.”
“The money that’s in my campaign account, I disclose where it came from, I disclose how I spend it,” he said, adding that payroll is an allowed campaign expenditure.
Jillson said the problem with paying legislative staff with campaign money is not that it could unduly influence lawmakers’ aides. It’s the potential impact those dollars have on the lawmakers themselves. Lawmakers are paid a miniscule salary of $7,200 per year from the state, which means many of them rely heavily on their campaign accounts to pay for their living expenses — sometimes extravagant ones. And because they are provided an insufficient amount of state dollars to run their offices, they feel forced to dip deeper into those campaign funds to do the basic job they were hired to accomplish, making them even more reliant on the lobbyists and special interests who contribute.
“The member knows that the only way they can have the staff support he or she needs is to take that money and use it,” Jillson said.
Fred Lewis, a campaign finance lawyer, said he doesn’t object to additional pay for state staffers. They’re probably worth the money, he said. But paying staff who are charged with representing the people out of campaign money, he said, has bad optics.
The solution to eliminating the need for the campaign funds that seep into the state Capitol, Lewis said, would be to pay lawmakers a living wage for their work and to provide them enough money to compensate a sufficient workforce.
“We need legislators and staff who are paid for and equipped and supplied by the state, which is essentially the public,” Lewis said, “and not underwritten in great measure by special interests and the lobby.”
Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect that Sen. Judith Zaffirini asks her staff for a commitment to work for two sessions. An earlier version said that she usually kept staff members for two years at a time.