The Utah House and Senate, run by Republicans, have been frugal in their own spending the past seven years, keeping their individual budgets well below the growth seen overall in state government.

But many individual legislative staffers — and especially two of the Legislature's own staff departments — have received big raises and/or seen significant spending increases of taxpayer cash, an analysis by the Deseret News shows.

The Legislature, including the House, the Senate, and their three main staff departments, has increased its overall budget by 49 percent over the past seven years.

In comparison to legislative spending on its own staffs, the state's two main non-transportation funds — the General Fund and the Education Fund — have also increased by 49 percent over the same time.

Both Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and GOP legislators hope to benefit this election year from a state Republican Party's public relations campaign (the "I Can" campaign) that touts Utah state government as being well-managed by GOP officeholders, so budget growth may well be a campaign issue.

But the Legislature's spending on itself only matches the state's budget growth because of lower-than-average spending by the House and Senate themselves. That includes the 29 senators and four or five full-time Senate staffers and the 75-member House and a similarly small staff. The House's internal budget grew by just 34 percent over seven years; the Senate's by just 28 percent. Legislative leaders have actually cut the House and Senate travel budet over the last seven years.

However, the newspaper's analysis, based on budgets and staff salaries obtained through the state's open records law, found that some legislative staffers' pay has far exceeded what most executive branch employees and managers are seeing, even outstripping the wage growth of average Utahns.

In addition, two legislative staff departments have outpaced general government growth.

The Office of Legislative Auditor General's budget grew by an astounding 80 percent over the past seven years. The Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel's budget grew by nearly 62 percent, figures show.

More auditors needed

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said legislative leaders made a conscious decision several years ago to hire more legislative auditors. "These audits save taxpayer dollars, because we find out how we can manage (the executive and judicial branches of government) better. Audits were backing up (not being finished in a timely manner), and we couldn't do the number of audits that were requested" by lawmakers.

Legislative auditor general John Schaff said he hired three additional auditors and one staff support person, reorganized the office, giving promotions to several people, and last year turned out 22 audits compared to 17 several years ago.

Mike Christensen, head of Legislative Research and General Counsel, said his budget is up because he hired five new employees over the past few years to deal with a greater workload.

The other main legislative office — the Fiscal Analyst, which drafts the state's budget — grew by 49 percent over that time frame — the same growth as the executive branch's main tax funds.

A review of salaries shows that legislative leaders and managers recently gave selected staffers pay raises that are double what the average Utahn was seeing, double what the average executive branch worker saw. Some legislative staffers got two or three raises in fiscal 2008 alone, which ended June 30, the documents show, while other staffers got raises that reflect what Utahns and other state employees averaged.

Legislative staffers who got the higher raises were reclassified, got wide-spread promotions or received pay in other adjustments, records show. The Legislature sets its own personnel pay scales, which are not administered by the executive branch's Department of Human Resource Management.

According to the state's Workforce Services economists, Utah wages overall grew by 4.6 percent from July 2007 to June 2008, the state's last fiscal year. Utah wages grew about 18.8 percent over the last four fiscal years, those economists say.

In the same fiscal years, state executive branch workers averaged pay raises (with promotions included) of 4.39 percent in FY 2005, 3.79 percent in FY 2006, 4.92 percent in FY 2007 and 4.44 percent in FY 2008, which ended June 30. Over four years, the average state executive branch worker has seen a pay raise of 17.5 percent, statistics provided by the state human resource office shows.

Some exceptions

With those numbers in mind, here are a few examples of some of the larger, or just odd, pay raises and pay scales in the Utah Legislature:

• Over the past year, Chris Bleak, the House chief of staff (the House's top political appointee,) has seen his salary go up 8.8 percent to $109,000. Over the same time, Ric Cantrell, the deputy of the Senate (the Senate's top political appointee), was given a raise of only 3.5 percent to $99,028.

Over the three years that Bleak has worked as House chief of staff his pay has gone from $88,438 to $109,000, or a 23 percent pay hike. Cantrell has received one big promotion — from an administrative assistant to deputy of the Senate, and over four years has seen his salary go from $45,000 a year to $99,028, a 110 percent increase. But he still gets a lower salary than Bleak.

• Personal politics, not just where one happens to work, may play a role in pay, one ex-staffer says.

Former House Clerk Carole Peterson, who worked for the House for more than 20 years, retired at the end of 2005 making $60,715 a year.

Sandra Tenney, a longtime employee of the Senate, was hired by House leaders to replace Peterson as clerk, the person who oversees floor sessions and a number of other operations. While Tenney started at about the same pay scale as Peterson, within eight months (and within the same fiscal year) Tenney was making $64,355 a year — $3,640 a year more than her predecessor.

In the past two years, House legislative leaders have raised Tenney's annual pay to $78,873, a 15.3 percent pay hike over that time.

"I asked (Curtis) for a $10,000 raise over two years so I could retire at $70,000 a year. It would have made a big difference in my pension," said Peterson, who describes herself as a lifelong Democrat, but who tried to keep her politics private as House clerk. "He said there wasn't enough money in the budget. Now Sandy is making $78,000, and I wanted to be at $70,000 a year and retire (in 2008). Very interesting. But I had to resign (in October 2005). (Curtis) told me he wanted to appoint the next clerk. I had taken enough crap from (Curtis)."

Peterson is running this year as a Democrat challenging Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton, although she said she was asked by some local Republicans to run against Garn as a Republican.

Tenney still makes less than Secretary of the Senate Annette Moore, who oversees legislative work on that side. Moore makes $81,806 a year, with nearly an 18 percent raise over the past two years

Curtis says he did not play favorites with Tenney, nor financially punish Peterson nor make her retire early. Tenney's pay raises have been appropriate in comparison with her job responsibilities, as have Bleak's pay raises, said Curtis. He doesn't recall specific pay discussions with Peterson. "She's been gone nearly three years, she's now an opposing (legislative) candidate, and now she's bringing this up?" He added: "This is part of the Democrats' election portfolio" of attacking Curtis, who is in a close re-election fight.

"I try to set a salary that will attract a quality person to do a professional job," said Curtis. Bleak has reorganized the House staff, said Curtis, consolidating several employee positions, and those savings are reflected in the low growth in the House's individual budget found in the newspaper's analysis. "We're saving taxpayer dollars," Curtis added. "And the Legislature is well-managed."

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said legislative leaders try to keep their top employees "in the basic range" of state executive branch bosses. Moore's pay raises of 18 percent over two years may seem high compared to an average state worker's (who got a two-year raise of 9.36 percent, including promotions,) but Valentine said he believes top state department heads have seen similar raises in recent years.

The job descriptions of House and Senate workers don't always match up perfectly, the president added. There are valid reasons for different salaries between the House, the Senate, and legislative staff departments, he said.

Big numbers

The newspaper also found:

• A Senate secretary, who stayed within her job classification (in other words, did not get a promotion), saw her salary go up by more than 41 percent over four years to more than $45,000 a year as of June 30.

• One legislative attorney got four raises in fiscal 2008 (but stayed within her pay classification), going from $49,000 to more than $61,000, a 24 percent increase, in just one year.

• Over the past 12 months, one legislative research analyst, who also stayed within her job classification, got three raises, from $94,161 a year to $104,956 — a pay hike of 11.5 percent.

• Two legislative attorneys got huge promotions last year, each jumping four pay grades. The salary for one went from $80,000 a year to $105,000 a year, a 31 percent pay hike. The other's salary went from $78,000 to $111,000, a 42 percent pay hike.

• Eleven of some 60 employees, or about 20 percent, in the Research and General Counsel's office got promotions into higher pay in the past fiscal year.

• One legislative auditor got four raises and one promotion in fiscal 2008, from $39,540 a year to $44,054, or an 11.4 percent pay hike.

• Another legislative auditor got two pay raises and one promotion last year. His last promotion, however, did not result in a pay raise, as it did for some other auditors. But being in a higher job classification will allow him to get bigger pay hikes in the future.

Christensen said in some specific cases he gave multiple pay raises last year to keep young, outstanding employees, while other professional staffers got promotions as "catch-up" because they didn't get the promotions/raises they should have in recent years.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com