ANNAPOLIS – Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. was out of money.
The Baltimore County Democrat still had $1,700 in phone bills to pay, but he had already spent the $12,465 of discretionary money the state gives him to run his district office.
“I used practically all of my discretionary fund for rent,” Burns said, “which meant that I didn’t have anything left for telephones.”
So the state Department of Legislative Services stepped in. To keep his phones on, the Finance and Administrative Services office advanced him the $1,700 and billed it against his budget for the next year.
When legislators run out of money for their offices, this practice lets them get money from future budgets to cover phone bills and utilities, according to a Capital News Service analysis of department records. Typically, the amounts involved are small: even Burns’ $1,700 is a tiny fraction of the $2.7 million doled out every year for legislators’ discretionary spending. And many other legislators come in under budget every year.
But DLS officials concede there’s no written limit on how much money legislators may be advanced from year to year, or on how long they can pass the buck.
“There’s the potential for abuse,” said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group.
The General Assembly should create an official policy rather than continuing “this unofficial, under-the-table budgeting,” Browning said. “What kind of example does that set?”
Burns isn’t the only example from the last fiscal year. Department records show fellow Democratic Delegate Salima Siler Marriott of Baltimore City also got $1,700 from her budget this year to cover last year’s phone bills.
“I do have a tremendous phone bill,” Marriott said. “I’m aware of it, and I’ve been struggling with it, trying to bring it down.”
A big part of the phone expenses, Marriott said, have been the long-distance three-way calls she uses while traveling on legislative business or visiting her grandchildren in Atlanta.
Both Marriott and Burns are good for the money, they say, and are making changes to stay on budget this year.
Not counting money specifically earmarked for travel and staff salaries, delegates each get $12,465 and senators receive $19,965 to spend at their discretion. The money covers district office expenses like phones and rent and may also be used to pay employees.
Roughly a dozen legislators run out of money before the end of each fiscal year, said Carol Clary, a legislative associate at the DLS finance office. If a phone bill arrives in the fiscal year’s waning days when a legislator’s budget is fresh out of cash, some of the next year’s money goes to pay the charge.
“When it’s near the end of the year, it’s not a big deal,” Clary said, adding that most cases amount to a few hundred dollars. Bigger shortfalls, like Burns and Marriott’s, are much rarer, she said.
DLS officials carefully weigh each case and make a judgment call over what’s the best deal for the state in the long run, said George F. Cutair Jr., an administrator for the DLS Finance and Administrative Services office. In many cases, forwarding a little money can save the state from paying extra fees to restart a legislator’s lapsed phone service, Cutair said.
“There is also a value of not having that stigma, that embarrassment for a legislator” or for the state, Cutair added.
General Assembly guidelines limit legislators’ phone expenses to $2,000 a year, but lawmakers may break the cap if they get permission from the Speaker of the House or President of the Senate. The total discretionary budget limit, on the other hand, is theoretically absolute.
Once a legislator has reached the end of his or her discretionary budget, the department’s accounting software won’t allow any more bills to be posted to the account, said Bonnie Clark, who’s in charge of technical services for the accounting office.
That forces DLS accountants to cover any spending beyond budget limits with cash from other parts of the DLS budget. This can disguise the spending, since the legislator’s financial records for that year don’t reflect the extra money.
Although legislators could theoretically keep borrowing funds from year to year, it’s happened “very few” times, Cutair said. And if such a case arose, “We would advise the leadership (of the General Assembly) if we felt that was necessary and allow them to make a decision,” Cutair said.
That situation has come up “several times” in the last four years, Cutair said.
But Cutair and Clary said they work to get all legislators to pay up by the time they leave office. In election years, for example, legislators only get half their budget up front.
“The state is not out any money,” stressed Burns, adding that he’ll come in under budget this year despite his deferred phone costs. He plans to eliminate his $9,000-a-year rent expense by moving his office into his home on Jan. 4.
“I had good office space, I was very happy with it, but I was paying out of my nose,” Burns said. By moving back home, “I’ll come under budget by far,” he said.
For her part, Marriott said she’s not spending discretionary funds on her staff. To keep her phone tab under control, she’s trying out a new billing plan and will have her phones turned off while she’s in Annapolis during the General Assembly session — as she’s done for the past three years.
Maryland legislators’ slim discretionary budgets are part of the problem.
“It’s ridiculous,” said activist Browning. “They have to rely on high school interns to advance their legislative agenda.”
Ideally, the state should treat legislators as professionals and compensate them better, Browning said, but he admits that probably won’t happen in the state’s current budget crisis.
“But the least we can do during a crunch,” Browning said, “is to crack down against funny accounting practices like borrowing against future budgets.”