Legislature Update: Driver’s License Fee Increase Getting Run Over

A bill by Sen. Joe McPherson (D-Woodworth) to repeal a $15 fee increase for driver’s licenses passed unanimously out of the Senate Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee yesterday amid heavy criticism of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s efforts to impose the fee by fiat.

State police Col. Mike Edmundson, on hand to defend the fee increase, caught flack on the governor’s behalf during the committee hearing on the bill. As the Advocate reports:

Members of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works chastised the Jindal administration for implementing the driver’s “record check” charge without their approval.

“It took the Legislature kind of by surprise. It certainly took the public by surprise,” said state Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth and the bill’s sponsor.

At issue is whether the Jindal administration circumvented a requirement that fee increases obtain a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said he was surprised the administration did not simply support legislation to implement the increase.

“You caught the ire of not just this committee but many senators,” state Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, told Edmonson.

The bill, SB 407, would refund all state revenue collected since the fee increase’s implementation.

Higher Ed Dustup On The Way

Yesterday, the Senate Education Committee sent SB 538 to the floor. The bill, authored by Sen. Ben Nevers (D-Bogalusa) would strengthen the state’s Board of Regents and give it a stronger hand in determining the missions and roles of Louisiana’s four-year colleges.

Sounds like a reform bill, right? Turns out SB 538 is the education establishment’s bill. The more radical reform, which hasn’t made its way through committee yet, is HB 996, which is House Speaker Jim Tucker’s bill that would abolish the Board of Regents, the LSU board, the Southern University board and the University of Louisiana board and create the Louisiana University System Board of Trustees in their place.

In other words, what passed the Senate Education Committee is a bill to basically maintain the current system of higher education. That system, and its predecessors, has produced horrendous graduation rates and perpetuates idiocy like Southern University’s campus in New Orleans, which soaks up some $30 million in state dollars per year to exist practically next door to the University of New Orleans, operate in such a dysfunctional manner that SUNO students can’t graduate without cross-registering at UNO to take some required courses, and graduates a paltry six percent of its students.

And yet the Council For A Better Louisiana favors Nevers’ bill. So does the state’s higher ed establishment, to no one’s surprise.

“In terms of changing an entire governance system during this critical time only begets more problems than it solves,” CABL head Barry Erwin said.

Big fight coming. Tucker is probably on the right track with his bill, as wasteful and unproductive campuses which need to be scaled back or shut down won’t be under a Byzantine system of multiple, turf-protecting boards. But given the mess Tucker made last week by punishing the other side in the Speaker Pro Tem election, and especially given that his bill is a constitutional amendment and needs a two-thirds majority to pass, it’s going to be an uphill battle to effect the major change he’s looking for. The question is, if Tucker’s bill isn’t going to pass – will the House scuttle Nevers’ bill?

Meanwhile, despite the hue and cry about educational budget cuts the LSU system chancellors report that so far they’ve been able to make the cuts asked of them by the governor without having to lay anybody off. Furloughs will probably happen, but no job losses as yet.

Tells you that maybe some of these ships weren’t as tight as they could have been.

Retirement-Cash-For-Convict Bills Making A Mess

Three bills in the House Retirement Committee ran into trouble, and two were withdrawn, after objections were raised to how they proposed to go about preventing public officials convicted of crimes to access state retirement dollars. The Advocate has the story:

Two of the bills were withdrawn by their sponsors who say they will redraft the measures.

A third bill was advanced on a 4-3 vote only after state Rep. Kevin Pearson, who chairs the House Retirement Committee, promised sweeping changes before his House Bill 224 would be considered by the full House.

Pearson, a Republican, said he is constantly hearing from constituents in his Slidell-based district who criticize the laws that let convicted public officials, such as former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, collect publicly funded retirement benefits even as he serves a prison sentence.

“The public is angry about government officials committing crimes against the public, getting convicted, going to jail, then collecting a government check. And I can’t say that I blame them,” Pearson said. “We’re trying to take care of this problem. But every time we clear one road block, we run into another one.”

Lobbyists for several groups representing public employees, such as teachers, firefighters and law enforcement, testified that they agreed with the goal but had reservations about how the proposals would impact other aspects of the retirement systems for public employees.

“Sheriffs support the concept,” Robert D. Klausner, general counsel for the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Pension and Relief Fund. “The bill needs some work as a practical matter.”

“There are so many gray areas in here it absolutely scares the heck out of me,” said state Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, a retired firefighter.

HB224 would forbid paying retirement benefits to a public employee who is incarcerated, regardless of the crime.

In order to keep from punishing spouses and families — often the retirement account is the only available cash on which to live with the breadwinner in prison — Pearson’s bill would have the jailed employee considered dead as far as the retirement system is concerned. That designation would allow the family to receive monthly payments from the retirement account, Pearson said.

What is astounding is the concern for spouses and families here. Sure, the wife and kids might not have committed the crime – but if they’re eating out at Commander’s Palace and driving Beemers off money siphoned from the public trough, do we really care that the retirement check might be slim or none once the U.S. Attorney stops the gravy train?

The whole point is to make the consequences of being a crooked politician REALLY bad. The wife having to sell the house and get a job and the kids having to put themselves through college, while all of them curse Dad-The-Scumbag-Hack for causing them such pain is precisely the kind of downside we’re looking for. The worse the consequences are, one suspects, the less likely intelligent or semi-intelligent people would expose themselves to them by stealing our money.

The fact that something so obvious as forfeiture, or even partial forfeiture, of state retirement benefits for crooked politicians would be mired in minutiae only reinforces the impression a cynical public will have that the leges are looking out for themselves rather than the rest of us.

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