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Story Archives: Bitter pill to swallow
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|Bitter pill to swallow|
Earl Long once said, and I paraphrase, that there are two kinds of people in Louisiana – those who have state jobs and those who want them.
To appreciate Long's remark we must remind ourselves that the former governor reigned supreme when Louisiana was far poorer than it is today. Money was hard to come by back then, legally that is, and one of the best jobs a man or woman could secure entailed working for state government. Those state jobs didn't pay very well, but they offered security for people who, in many cases, had nowhere to turn to find a job other than government. And even back then state employees were promised an income when they retired.
We're reminded of Uncle Earl's acute observation from so long ago in light of the controversy Gov. Bobby Jindal ignited recently when he proposed that the retirement system for state employees (minus teachers and law enforcement personnel) must undergo a dramatic overhaul. The system needs tweaking because it represents a financial liability the state cannot afford to meet down the road.
Jindal should have included the education and law enforcement communities in his reform proposal, for it seems a bit unfair to target one group of government employees while allowing two others to escape unscathed. But Jindal probably felt that weaning one group of state employees from the government teat would be a difficult challenge in and of itself without bringing two influential special interest groups into the mix.
Uncle Earl's remark comes to mind, too, because we've learned that a couple of former state lawmakers have landed good-paying jobs working for the state.
Defeated last fall in her bid for a seat in the state Senate, former Rep. Jane Smith was appointed by Jindal to serve as deputy secretary at the state Department of Revenue. She'll earn $107,500 annually.
A former educator, Smith is now in a position to dramatically ramp up the amount of money she'll collect in retirement benefits from the state. Remember, the amount of money collected in retirement – after a certain number of years of service – is based on the three highest years in salary the employee collects working for the state.
Then there's former Rep. Noble Ellington.
First elected to the House of Representatives in 1987, Ellington served in the Legislature from 1988-2012. Three terms were served in the House while three terms were served in the Senate. He opted not to seek re-election last fall.
Earlier this year, Commissioner of Insurance Jim Donelon appointed Ellington to serve as first assistant to the commissioner. Ellington will earn $150,000 per year in his new job.
Though state lawmakers were banned from participating in the state retirement system beginning in the late 1990s, Ellington and lawmakers like him were grandfathered into the state retirement system. That's the case because their service to the state was initiated prior to the Legislature changing the law to prevent members of the House and Senate from collecting retirement checks.
It's only fair that lawmakers like Ellington were allowed to remain in the retirement system because they had paid into it for a number of years. However, that's not going to stop some people from griping about Ellington landing a good job working for Donelon. Detractors view it as another example of the politically connected taking care of themselves.
The criticism isn't exactly fair to Ellington because Donelon couldn't have tapped a more qualified individual to serve as his first assistant. Think about it.
Ellington is a long-time lawmaker who gets along well with others. And he'll do a good job representing the Department of Insurance before the Legislature, which is what Donelon apparently had in mind when he approached his former colleague about working for him.
Besides, working for the Department of Insurance, especially in the role in which Ellington is serving, isn't an easy gig. Think about that one, too, and remember that three of the last four commissioners of insurance went to prison.
We can criticize or defend Ellington and Smith and others like them over their new jobs until we're blue in the face. It's all for naught because what's done is done. And they've done nothing illegal or unethical – according to state ethics laws.
Still, it's awfully difficult to explain to a state employee that the rules governing their retirement must change. And they're about to undergo a change because the state can't afford to maintain the status quo.
Whose fault is that?
If you're searching for an answer, look no further than any current or former member of the Legislature who voted in favor of improving the retirement benefits for state employees. Look at the folks who asked for them, too.
Those "yes" votes put the state in the position that's in today, whether you like it or not.