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House speaker gives out $638,000 in bonuses

Allan Bense doles out $518 to $10,000 to more than 200 House staffers. It’s a tradition that cost less than $300,000 last year.

Published June 28, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - House Speaker Allan Bense has been generous with praise for the state employees who work grueling hours to make lawmakers look good.

Now Bense is backing up his talk with tax dollars by awarding lump-sum bonuses of up to $10,000 each to more than 200 House employees.

The total value of the bonuses is $638,000, the most money granted by a speaker at the end of a session.
It's traditional for legislative leaders to hand out bonuses for good work, but Bense is much more generous this year than last, when he awarded 77 bonuses at a cost of less than $300,000.

"We had a good session, and the staff in Tallahassee were great. I think they did a job above and beyond the call of duty," said Bense, a Republican who manages a construction company, golf course and other enterprises in Panama City. "It's just the way I run my business."

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the incoming House minority leader, said Bense's bonuses are well-deserved, and that staff members often sacrifice their home lives for the the nine weeks the Legislature is in session.

"When people go above and beyond, it ought to be rewarded," Gelber said.
As the clock struck midnight on May 5, the last night of the 2006 session, Bense brought a frantic final day of lawmaking to an abrupt halt. Then he summoned dozens of employees to the rostrum where he thanked them for their hard work.

In the past few days, Bense has sent letters to the fortunate staffers, praising them for their "hard work and commitment" to the House. One note described an $8,000 bonus as "an expression of my appreciation for your exemplary work performance."

The average bonus is about $3,200, and the money will appear in paychecks Friday, the last day of the fiscal year.
Not everybody will be getting a fatter paycheck. Nearly one-third of the House's 294 staff members aren't getting anything extra, and some aren't happy about it.

"It's a call that I made. Whenever you do something like that there are those who are happy and those who are unhappy," Bense said. "I am a firm believer in merit pay."

Bense said he doled out the bonses solely on the basis of recommendations of the staff directors of House councils, who manage groups of committees.

The people who work for the Legislature serve at the will of the speaker or Senate president. They work 18-hour days during legislative sessions with no overtime, have little job security and can be replaced at the whim of the next presiding officer. Some of them in fact will not be offered jobs when new leaders take charge after the election.

Bense's chief of staff, Bob Ward, who is in charge of all House employees and acts as Bense's right-hand man, will receive the biggest bonus, $10,000. Ward earns $136,752.

Renee Lemonier, an administrative assistant to the House Colleges and Universities Committee, will receive the smallest bonus, $518.

Ten employees will receive bonuses of $8,000 each. They include Cynthia Kelly, staff director of the House Fiscal Council, which writes the state budget; Bense's communications director, Towson Fraser; Frank Terraferma, staff director of the House Republican Office; and Barry Kling, staff director of the House Democratic Office, where employees are paid to criticize Bense and other Republican leaders.

The day after the session ended, Democrats rolled out a news release calling the 2005 session one of "missed opportunities," especially concerning property insurance, property taxes and campaign reform.

John Phelps, the House's long-time clerk, who is retiring, will get a bonus of $6,755, and Sergeant-at-Arms Earnest Sumner will see $5,449. Bense's new son-in-law Will Weatherford, a staffer in the speaker's office, will get a $5,000 bonus.

The one-time bonuses will not increase employees' base pay. But the new state budget includes separate 3-percent across-the-board raises for all state workers.

Bense's spokesman said that in his two years as speaker, Bense will have returned nearly $19-million in unspent House funds to the state treasury. The bonuses came from a pot of unspent money from the 2005 fiscal year, Bense's first as speaker.

Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico, has not yet made any decisions about bonuses for his staff. Spokeswoman Kathy Mears said Lee has a proposed list of bonuses for Senate staffers, but has not decided which staffers, if any, will receive merit bonuses.

Last year, Bense and Lee spent a combined $359,000 on bonuses for 77 House staffers and 17 Senate employees. Speaker Johnnie Byrd Jr. gave $1,000 bonuses to every House employee in 2004.

Reporter Steve Bousquet is at or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified June 28, 2006, 22:15:24]

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