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|Pay raise costly to legislators, Jindal|
After months of laboring in the shadow of their superstar governor, Louisiana legislators finally did something to attract public notice, and they are paying dearly for it.
June 10 could have been remembered as the day the largest income tax cut in state history--the $300 million repeal of the 2002 Stelly plan--received final legislative approval. But instead of adjourning and going out for drinks, the Senate promptly snuffed out the good will by voting to triple their annual pay to $50,700. That set off a public firestorm that engulfed the legislative branch and scorched the governor too.
Though the chastened House later scaled back the base pay to $37,500--double current compensation--public reaction was summed up in three words Bobby Jindal hoped never to hear about his term in office: politics as usual.
The pay-raise saga unfolded with gross political miscalculation every step of the way. Though wily Senate veterans were blamed for cooking up the increase, they would not have passed it at that level were not the first-term, ethics-charged representatives clamoring for it.
That squares with what one wise pol told me in the afterglow of the ethics special session. Contrary to first impressions, he said, "The Senate is scared to death and the House knows no fear."
They know it now, having felt the full blast of white-hot public anger, from stern editorials to hyper-ventilating bloggers and torrents of e-mails and phone calls. By Thursday afternoon, cocksure predictions of easy House passage began to be hedged. Mused a lobbyist, "They're folding like Dixie cups."
The next morning Speaker Jim Tucker walked the floor with his tick sheet to get the bad news firsthand. After lunch, the salary level was scaled back to $37,500 (with $6,000 unvouchered expenses and $143 per diem), with future increases tied to the Consumer Price Index instead of congressional pay.
After the vote, emotionally drained legislators had to wonder if it was worth it. At least they will benefit monetarily from the ordeal, as opposed to Gov. Jindal, who got only grief and a shattering end to his gubernatorial honeymoon.
This governor's unprecedented detachment from the legislative session failed him on Senate Bill 672, which had "Explosives!" written all over it as it ticked away on the Senate calendar. Early on, Jindal told legislative leaders he would stay neutral on the issue, though he erred in not giving them a dollar limit on that neutrality. When the Senate appeared ready to move the bill at the $50,700 level, Jindal panicked--or his chief of staff did--and phoned in a veto threat.
In a showdown meeting that Jindal delegated to aide Timmy Teepell, Speaker Tucker warned that if the governor vetoed the pay raise after saying he would stay out of it, "the wheels would come off the session," jeopardizing administration bills.
Jindal had to choose between being a man of his word or a man of his people, who were demanding he act to stop the raise. By declining to do so, he made the right call not to die on someone else's hill. Yet if public pressure continues to mount, the 20-day veto window will be the longest, darkest days of his short, shining career.
There is some consensus that the $16,800 base salary, set in 1980, should have been gradually adjusted upward over the years. If so, $37,500 for the state's policy makers and appropriators would seem more reasonable, even for part-time work, compared to the escalating six-figure salaries of many bureaucrats.
Out of session, constituents and local officials expect legislators to be available to help deal with a government that is more centralized than other states its size. Lawmakers don't have to do those things, but they are labeled as lazy or aloof when they don't.
There are many shades of green on the pay raise question, and legislative leaders must accept responsibility for not making a better case for it. Quick votes taken without debate or questions rightly exacerbated public anger.
Legislators are right on one thing. The higher salary will attract more qualified and motivated individuals to run than who could afford to before. The current Legislature has provided future candidates not only greater incentive for public service, but also a compelling issue by which to send better-paid incumbents home.