The outrage expressed by lawmakers last fall on hearing of an apparent case of double-dipping on bonus payouts for one state agency dulled to a whimper Thursday at a Capitol budget hearing.
Six senior managers of the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which administers 3.4 million acres of trust lands for the financial benefit of public schools, were paid $294,000 in bonuses last year. While $135,000 of that money was, according to a legislative fiscal analyst, "consistent with the payments of the last 10 years," the other money was paid unusually early and appeared to be an attempt to get around a decision by legislators to suspend all bonuses at the agency for fiscal 2010.
The move riled lawmakers when it became public last October. But on Thursday, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, was sending a different message.
"I can see why they made this move," Noel said. "The directors of SITLA are in full compliance with what the Legislature asked them to do."
SITLA board member James Lee explained that the board, which administers the executive bonuses, changed its meeting schedule from previous years — a move that resulted in the bonus decision-making process being accomplished earlier than in the past and checks being handed out earlier. Lee told the appropriations panel that they were not trying to sidestep the intent of lawmakers.
"I would like to say that the board would never knowingly act counter to the wishes of the Legislature," Lee said. "We believed the Legislature approved the paying of the bonuses set and met for fiscal 2009."
Noel said the bonus system is a plus for SITLA, because it allows the agency to function more like a private business in rewarding the performance of its managers. While the $294,000 paid to SITLA managers was earned because they met "goals," Lee said that only 10 percent of the money is awarded based on meeting earnings targets — the rest was paid out for successfully completing a long-range plan for the agency.
Bonuses in the coming year appear to be on hold.
In fiscal 2009, SITLA paid some $428,000 to its approximately 70 employees, according to figures provided by the legislative analyst's office. The bonus program, launched in 1997, has paid out $3.1 million to date.