Critics cry foul, but the House speaker says employees should be rewarded since he saved the state $15-million.
By LUCY MORGAN and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 11, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, extols the virtues of fiscal responsibility and "living within our means."
But Byrd quietly spent a half-million dollars in public money Friday to give 500 House employees bonuses of $1,000 each.
Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville, a fellow Republican who spent most of the past two years battling Byrd for more money for Florida's neediest citizens, criticized the bonuses Tuesday.
"He was adamant about being Mr. Conservative, and fought with us tooth-and-nail on everything we were trying to do," King said. "If you admit we have a fiscal problem, you can't fix it by arbitrarily giving money away."
Byrd defended the expenditure, saying he returned about $15-million in tax dollars to the state treasury.
"We run it more like a business. We've reduced the staff, and we've asked them to do more," Byrd said. "It's just consistent with running it like a business."
The $15-million in savings Byrd cited stems from operational changes and eliminating positions. Byrd's office says the House has 22 fewer full-time positions than in 2002, saving $1.3-million. The House also saved money by leasing less office space.
Byrd's bonuses came less than a month before voters pick a Republican nominee for Senate. He has been lagging in the polls in the field of eight candidates.
Byrd called the timing coincidental and said the bonuses were given out as part of a quarterly employee awards program.
State lawmakers approved $1,000 bonuses for all state employees instead of regular raises, so Byrd's move gives House employees two bonuses. King did not award bonuses to all Senate employees. "No one questions that legislative employees are doing a good job and doing it at high risk, but we have a problem we are trying to safeguard against," King said. "I'm not sure a prudent financial person would say it's a smart thing to do. I know employees of the Senate recognize this, and I don't think they would expect me to do something that is so fiscally wrong."
In a memo to about 480 House employees, Byrd thanked staffers for their contributions to keeping taxes low, reducing the size of government and protecting Florida's most vulnerable citizens.
"In recognition of your dedication and service to the House of Representatives, I have authorized a $1,000 bonus. It's a small token of my appreciation for all of your efforts," Byrd wrote.
The bonuses will be in House paychecks Monday.
House employees who have taken leaves to work on political campaigns will not be eligible.
House rules give the speaker sole authority over employee compensation. A spokesman said the money was taken from funds for House operations.
One of Byrd's Republican Senate opponents, Doug Gallagher, who's running as a successful business executive, faulted Byrd's use of tax dollars and raised the issue during a statewide TV debate Tuesday night.
"If he's got a private sector company and he wants to do something like that, that's fine," Gallagher said in an interview. "But I think it really sends the wrong message to use tax dollars in that fashion."
Gallagher's campaign strategist, Richard Pinsky, was more blunt.
"What he did is unconscionable," said Pinsky, who also lobbies the Legislature. "He gives away my money to those employees. . . . The no good son of a b---- is planning to be a lobbyist." He ended his comments by saying, "You can quote me."