At a time when Gov. Rick Perry is ordering state agencies to cut their budgets and brace for economic decline, the Texas House of Representatives is renovating its members lounge with new furnishings, televisions, a refrigerator and other upgrades.
Aides to House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, confirmed that state tax dollars are being used for the upgrade, which also apparently includes $30,000 worth of antique wood as well as new carpet and food-service improvements. They declined to immediately provide cost figures.
Watchdog groups said it was the wrong time to spend government dollars on a members-only lounge for politicians.
"That's completely inappropriate," said Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a taxpayer advocacy group. "Now is not the time to be engaging in extravagant dalliances. Now is the time for the Legislature to show leadership by restraining itself."
House accountant Steve Adrian said state representatives have long complained that their private lounge, located just off the House floor, was shabby in comparison to the one state senators have.
"We always get remarks that the Senate has a nicer one than they do," Adrian said. "We're trying to update ours as well." Adrian could not provide an estimated pricetag for the renovation.
But on Oct. 10, the House paid Austin-based Vintage Materials Supply Co. $30,600, which sells antique wood. Adrian said the purchase might be related to the installation of new wood cabinets.
The State Preservation Board has also been asked to upgrade electrical and plumbing systems, officials said.
Craddick's office said the project is being coordinated by state Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Administration committee.
Goolsby said two new TVs, a refrigerator and a new food service line were included in the upgrade, but the 19-year House veteran otherwise had scant details about the expenditures.
Goolsby said he hadn't kept up with it because he's been too focused on his own political survival in a district where supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama — and presumably his opponent Carol Kent — are highly energized.
"I'm up to my ass in a damn campaign," Goolsby said. "This is the only job I've got and I'm trying to save it. Obama's got people coming from the rafters."
Craddick's aides said the money for the renovation came from Texas taxpayers.
"This is not our project," said Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee. "The funds used to pay for the renovation will come from unexpended balances from the House appropriation. They can only be used for House purposes. What they decide to do with that money is up to them."
The lounge upgrade comes as Perry is asking government departments — but not the Legislature — to adopt austerity measures to reduce their budget as the economy declines. Perry recently instructed bureaucrats to "dial back their spending."
"As stewards of public dollars, we must remain fiscally responsible and continue to put taxpayers first by finding ways to curtail state spending," Perry wrote agency heads earlier this month.
Tom "Smitty" Smith of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, called the expenditures wasteful and ill-timed.
"It's the height of hypocrisy for legislators to be out spending money feathering their lounge when everybody else has to cut back," Smith said. "There's no more classic definition of a private club than that part of our capitol."