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|Paying the field hands|
When word spread that Sen. Ann Duplessis of New Orleans had sponsored legislation to grant state lawmakers a pay raise, her proposal was not well received.
Instead, the Duplessis measure—Senate Bill 672—was treated like the plague.
That may be putting it mildly.
Editorial writers, columnists and others pounced on the Duplessis bill, arguing along the way that lawmakers were part-time public servants who deserved part-time pay.
Or something to that effect.
Currently being bantered about in the regular legislative session, the Duplessis bill would raise compensation for each lawmaker from $16,800 annually to $70,000 per year. The Speaker of the House, or the highest-ranking member of the House of Representatives, would make $80,000 a year, an increase from $32,000 annually. The president of the Senate would draw some $80,000 a year, too. The Senate president currently makes $32,000 annually as well.
The Duplessis bill also would raise the annual compensation for the pro tempore positions in the House and Senate, which are the No. 2 leadership jobs in each legislative body. The pro tems, who currently make $24,000 a year, would earn $75,000 in a given year.
Duplessis' legislation would grant lawmakers an increase in the money they're given to operate their legislative offices in their respective districts.
Currently, lawmakers are allowed some $500 per month to operate their district offices. That amount would rise to $1,500 a month for members of the House and $3,000 per month for senators.
The operational funds for district offices can't be pocketed; it must be appropriated for expenses stemming from the operation of a district office. That's the way the law reads today, and that's the manner in which the money would be used under the Duplessis bill.
There's more to the Duplessis measure, too.
The amount of money lawmakers are paid for convening in a regular or special legislative session and/or for gathering for committee meetings during off times of the year would undergo a change.
Better known as per diems, each legislator currently draws $143 per day for meeting in session and/or for gathering for committee meetings and the like when the Legislature as a whole is not in session.
The Duplessis bill designates that legislators would draw per diems "equal to the rate allowable for per diem deduction under Section…of the United States Code for the location of the state capital during their attendance on that body." Furthermore, the Duplessis measure would put an end to lawmakers drawing per diems when the Legislature isn't in session, or when legislators simply convene a committee meeting during off times in a year.
At first blush, the Duplessis bill reads like a huge pay pike for lawmakers.
In some ways, that's exactly what it is.
Let's pause for a moment, though, and ask ourselves what we expect of legislators. Let's reflect for a moment, too, and ask ourselves from which socio-economic background do we desire our legislators to originate. Specifically, let's ask ourselves whether the Legislature should be comprised of individuals who are either very wealthy personally or have little to no personal wealth at all.
As it stands today, many members of the Legislature are well off. Some of them are what we could describe as rich. The money they make as members of the House or Senate, quite frankly, does not determine whether they'll put food on the table for their families.
There are a host of attorneys serving in the Legislature as well. Some of them are personal injury lawyers who can afford to take a break from the practice of law to play lawmaker. Handling a few personal injury cases each year pays the bills and them some.
Meanwhile, there are other members of the Legislature who have not been as fortunate in life. They do not have the luxury of either relying on a great deal of interest income to pay bills or enjoy the advantages of having well-established businesses at home that, in many ways, can operate quite well in their absence. In some corners, they could be described as poor.
Yet, if serving in the Legislature was a part-time job, one could easily argue that a salary of $16,800 annually, plus per diems, was adequate compensation for a public servant who, indeed, worked part-time.
Serving in the Legislature, however, is anything but a part-time job.
People who have been exposed to the day-to-day activities of lawmakers know full well that point is true.
If legislators aren't meeting in session or in committee meetings at the capitol, they're at home in their districts tending to a number of endeavors such as pursuing economic development projects for their constituents, fixing speeding tickets, running down LSU football tickets and/or leaning on some deadhead bureaucrat to land Joe Blow's boy a scholarship at the university down the road.
That's all part of the job of serving in the Louisiana Legislature.
And it's a full-time affair that's worthy of a full-time salary.
Years ago, Earl Long said the only people who enjoyed access to adequate healthcare were the "rich, rich" and the "poor, poor."
If the compensation for lawmakers doesn't change soon, the only sane people serving in the Legislature will be the "rich, rich" and the "poor, poor."