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Serving the constituents -- expensively Running office in Albany can cost nearly $1 million

Dale M. Volker spends nearly $1 million a year to run his State Senate office, while some of his colleagues in the local delegation get by on half as much money.

In the Assembly, Robin L. Schimminger spends nearly three times more money to run his shop than some of his colleagues.

Welcome to the New York State Legislature, which spends more than $200 million a year and employs more than 3,500 to serve the wants and needs of 212 members of the Senate and Assembly.

Put another way, the Legislature employs as many people as the City of Buffalo and the Town of Amherst combined. Cops, firefighters, trash collectors -- the whole works.

"It's a platinum-coated Legislature," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Legislators spend more than one-third of their budget to staff and operate their offices. Seniority and party affiliation drive how much a legislator gets.

The longer you serve, the more you spend. And if your party is in the majority, you get more than those in the minority.

As a result, Volker, the Depew Republican who has served in the Senate for 32 years, operates the costliest office of the 19 legislators who represent Western New York.

His office -- including his salary and those of his staff, rent and telephone, and bulk mail that sometimes serves political purposes -- cost taxpayers $922,137 in the last budget year, according to state documents.

>Spending is defended

Schimminger, the Kenmore Democrat who has served in the Assembly for 31 years, spent $622,512, and he represents fewer than half the number of voters as Volker and others in the Senate. Most of the other Assembly members in the local delegation spent less than $300,000 -- some considerably less.

Volker did not return telephone calls seeking comment, but Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, was among those in the local delegation who defended the Legislature's spending.

While there is "no question" the Legislature could rein in spending compared with other states, Maziarz said, "New York has a lot of major challenges" that justify higher spending.

The Buffalo News analyzed the expenses of the Legislature from April 1, 2007, to March 31 of this year, the most current data available. The News also analyzed other spending data and compared expenses with other state legislatures.

Here are the key findings:

*New York has one of the costliest state legislatures in the nation. Its budget ranks third and is more than double that of all but four states.

*At $79,500, the base pay of New York lawmakers also ranks third-highest in the nation. Legislative salaries in other states are typically half or less of those in New York.

*New York legislators supplement their base wages with generous stipends for performing a range of duties such as serving as chairman, or ranking minority member, of committees. The Senate has 62 members and 87 stipends that average $20,879. The Assembly provides 115 stipends averaging $13,852 to its 150 members. The stipends total $2.9 million.

*All but three of the 19 members of the local legislative delegation were paid stipends. Four made six figures as a result: Volker $104,500; Assemblyman William L. Parment, D-Jamestown, $101,500; and Sen. William T. Stachowski D-Lake View, and Assemblyman James P. Hayes, R-Amherst, $100,000 each.

*While Volker spent the most money among local lawmakers, his cost per voter trails two Assembly members. Schimminger's cost was $8.06 per active voter in his district, compared with $6.14 for Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo and $5.54 for Volker. By contrast, the region's three members of Congress -- Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence; and Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport -- run their offices, both locally and in Washington, D.C., for about $4.05 per voter.

*The Legislature spends a lot of money on self-promotion. Some comes out of office expenses -- an average of more than $47,000 per local legislator for mass mailings. Yet more was spent for mail out of the Legislature's general coffers.

Inequities found

Still more was expended to provide services that help lawmakers burnish their images -- everything from press spokesmen and television producers to photographers and Web site designers. The indirect spending averages up to $155,000 per senator and $90,000 per Assembly member, although those in power enjoy a disproportionate share of the resources.

"Given the state's multibillion-dollar budget deficit, the Legislature might look more closely at how its spends it own budget," said Lise Bang-Jensen, senior policy analyst at the Empire Center for Policy.

State lawmakers spend lavishly on themselves, according to a 2004 study updated in 2006 by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Only two state legislatures in the nation had bigger budgets.

The center found large disparities in the amount of money legislators are given to spend to staff their district and capital offices.

Spending by Republican senators in the majority was 82 percent higher than that of Democrats. In the Assembly, average spending by Democrats, who are in the majority, was 47 percent higher than that of Republicans.

"The effect is that constituents who elect a minority party representative (i.e., a Democrat in the Senate or a Republican in the Assembly) are punished," the report said.

The biggest factors driving spending are the size and salaries of legislators' staffs. Legislators typically maintain two offices, one in Albany, another in their home district, although some operate a second local office, as well.

The smaller offices employ as few as three full-time equivalents. Volker has the largest full-time staff, 13, of local lawmakers, reports show.

Other major expenses involve travel costs and per diem paid to legislators when they work in Albany -- they receive $154 a day -- mail and expenses related to running an office, such as rent, telephones and cleaning services.

Legislators set the pay of their staff members. While some employees assist legislators who serve as chairmen, particularly in the Senate, much of the work is done by committee staff not included in The News calculations.

Volker not only has the largest staff among local legislators, but the best paid.

The average pay of the dozen who remained on staff during the full year studied by The News was $54,288.

Nancy Passer, administrator of the Albany office, earned $70,000. Craig Miller, who doubles as Volker's press spokesman and director of the Codes Committee, of which Volker is chairman, earned $68,000.

The best paid was John R. Drexelius Jr., an attorney who earned $101,688 and assisted Volker on the Codes Committee, which drafts criminal laws.

Assembly members have smaller staff than senators; their districts are more compact and have less than half as many voters.

Schimminger had the most full-time employees among the local delegation. His six employees earned an average of $57,480.

>Added responsibilities

Chief of staff Kenneth L. Berlinski earned $84,503. Office manager Judith Giuliano made $63,328; Therese M. Wegler, director of community relations, made $62,410.

Is it fair that he has a bigger, better-paid staff than others in the local delegation?

Schimminger cited the longevity of his staff and his assignments that come with being the fifth-longest-tenured member of the Assembly.

"As the chairperson of the [Western New York] delegation, as the chairman of the Standing Committee on Economic Development, as the Budget Conference Committee co-chairman for economic development, and a somewhat senior member, I have responsibilities above and beyond the norm," Schimminger said.

Having a larger staff also provides legislators an advantage at election time. It's common practice for senators and Assembly members to allow their staffs to pile up compensatory time during legislative sessions and then use that time to work on campaigns without losing pay.

>'Incumbent protection'

Thanks to $25,000 in stipends, Volker ranks as the highest-paid member of the delegation. Stachowski bumped his salary for being the ranking minority member of the Finance Committee.

On the Assembly side, Parment gets extra pay for being in leadership. Hayes makes extra for being the ranking minority member on the Ways and Means Committee.

The only three not to pick up extra money are three junior Democratic Assembly members: Mark J.F. Schroeder, D-Buffalo; Crystal D. Peoples, D-Buffalo; and Dennis H. Gabryszak, D-Cheektowaga.

Most members get stipends, which provide a major boost in pay. Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, each get an additional $41,500. Committee chairmen make $12,500 to $34,000. Being the ranking minority member of a committee nets an extra $9,000, even though the position can sometimes be all but powerless.

One area where there is relative equity is in mailing privileges. Members, regardless of seniority or party, get about the same amount of money for bulk mail and newsletters to constituents, depending on how many voters they represent. Committee chairmen get to mail additional pieces.

Sen. Catharine M. Young, R-Olean, spent the most on mailing among local senators, $104,701, followed by Sens. Antoine M. Thompson, D-Buffalo, $99,653, and Volker, $92,830. Among Assembly members, Hayes spent the most on mailing, $46,660, followed closely by Schimminger, $46,249.

The expenditure reports examined by The News showed $894,759 in direct spending on mass mailings, an average of $47,093.

"Using taxpayer funds for mail can serve a purpose, but it can also serve the purpose of incumbent protection," said Chris Keeley, associate director of Common Cause New York, a nonpartisan citizens lobbying organization promoting open, honest and accountable government.



High-cost lawmakers

The State Legislature...

... Employs as many workers as Buffalo and Amherst combined.

... Gives its members generous stipends to supplement their $79,500 annual salaries.


Legislators from Western New York...

... Spend from $212,254 to $992,137 a year to operate their offices.

... Include top spenders Sen. Dale Volker, $992,137, and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, $622,512.

... Average more than $47,000 a year on mass mailings to voters.

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