Inactive State Committees Costly

Fri, 02-24-2012
By: Matt Connolly

Lawmakers in the Illinois House earned an extra $661,000 last year for serving as committee officers, even though some committees met fewer than five times and a handful met once, a Chicago News Cooperative analysis found.

The House paid members who serve as committee chairmen and spokesmen (Springfield’s term for ranking minority members) $10,326 each in addition to their $67,836 salaries. The House operated 46 committees last year with more than a dozen subcommittees, a structure that allows more than half of House members to earn the stipend. Even the state House in New York, which has nearly twice the population of Illinois, operates fewer committees, with 37. The Illinois Senate has 28 committees.

The House committee system reveals one way in which Speaker Michael Madigan, Democrat of Chicago, builds loyalty among his members, who control the House by 64 to 54. Madigan not only chooses committee leaders, but he approves the creation of new committees, his office sets committee schedules, and he can steer the agenda by controlling which committees hear which bills.

Like many speakers around the country, Madigan makes committee assignments based on seniority, lawmakers said. House Democrats starting their third terms are routinely given chairmanships. The large number of committees is partly a result of that practice. A big freshman class requires the need for more committees four years later.

House committees averaged eight meetings annually during the last three years. Some met regularly, but others convened only once or twice, according to thousands of pages of committee schedules and cancellations from 2009, 2010 and 2011 obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and examined by the Chicago News Cooperative.

“I don’t know that there’s a hard and fast rule about committee workloads,” Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown, said. “If you only meet once, I’m not sure why that would be viewed as wrong. Committees meet as bills are introduced and assigned.”

Records show that five House committees met three times or fewer last year: adoption reform, headed by Representative Sara Feigenholtz; international trade and commerce, headed by Representative Jack Franks; biotechnology, overseen by Representative Edward Acevedo; armed forces and military affairs, led by Representative Eddie Lee Jackson; and tourism and conventions, overseen by Representative Kenneth Dunkin. Feigenholtz, Franks and Dunkin also headed second committees with heavier workloads. They were not paid two stipends.

In 2009 and 2010, more than 20 committees met three times or fewer. The busiest committee in 2011, revenue and finance, headed by Representative John Bradley, met 25 times.

Dunkin said his tourism committee did not require many meetings last year, but his appropriation-higher education committee demanded considerable time.

“I have no interest in taking advantage of the system,” he said. “All of us down here, we’re not hustling the system. I’ve spent a ton of hours on my appropriations committee. I disagree that tourism only met one time. We met three or four times. With tourism, there just aren’t that many bills. That’s just the way it is.”

In addition to international trade and commerce, Franks last year headed the panel that deals with state government administration, one of the House’s more active committees. He said committee work was part of the job, and the stipends for serving as committee officials allowed Madigan to steer extra pay toward lawmakers.

“I think it’s a way to get more money to members of the General Assembly without having to increase salaries,” Franks said. “That’s what it’s designed to do. If we’re honest with taxpayers, the more honest thing would be to vote to raise salaries.”

In 2009 and 2010, the biotech committee, led then by Representative Maria Antonia Berrios, met a total of four times. She was not heading other committees, records show. Computer technology, the only committee for Representative Careen Gordon, who has since retired, met twice in 2010, as did Representative Esther Golar’s disability services committee, the only panel she headed that year, according to the records.

House Republicans earn extra pay as well. The minority spokesman’s position on each committee is held by a Republican. Two committees, pension investments and veterans affairs, are led by Republicans.

Madigan creates committees based in part on members’ personal interests. That was how the railroads industry committee, headed by Representative Elaine Nekritz, started.

“I was in a class of 35 people,” said Nekritz, who was elected in 2002. “So by the time the speaker went through the seniority system, there wasn’t really one left. He asked me if there was a subject area I was interested in, and I told him railroads. Then, later, I took over judiciary.”

The number of House committees rose to 56 in 2009, dropped to 53 in 2010 and fell to 46 last year.

In 29 states, lawmakers do not earn extra pay for committee work. Ten states pay committee leaders extra, ranging from an $18 per diem in Kentucky to $34,000 for certain committee posts in New York, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Representative Will Davis oversees the appropriations-elementary and secondary education committee, which met 13 times last year, and the less active health and healthcare disparities panel, which met five times. He asked Madigan to form the health committee to address growing concern over health care delivery.

“He allows members the opportunity to create their own committees,” Davis said. “My committee doesn’t see a lot of bills, but we’ve had many subject-matter hearings, and I’ve asked for certain bills to be assigned to it.”

Some lawmakers say the number of committees can complicate their schedules. A member may be assigned to seven or more with overlapping meeting times.

“I couldn’t even call my own bills today because too many members were running to other committees,” Franks said of his government administration committee meeting. “We could certainly cut down the number of committees.”