A ghost from the past emerged from the shadows in the state House of Representatives last week and caught legislators off guard. They had been getting ready for their trips home for the weekend.
No, it wasn’t Casper, the friendly ghost, who got them out of their seats. It was Rep. Bodi White, RCentral, who shattered the calm when he suggested legislators should cut their per diem, monthly expenses and travel pay next year.
Suddenly, and without warning, memories of a legislative pay increase that was vetoed and buried in 2008 were resurrected.
Many lawmakers were probably asking themselves and others, “What is Bodi trying to do to us?”
Legislators who supported the pay raise in 2008 know their past votes could surface in the fall elections, but they were hoping to keep things relatively quiet — at least until then.
One lawmaker said White was just trying to get back in the voters’ good graces because of the vote he cast for that pay increase.
White countered that everybody in state government is being asked “to do more with less,” and legislators should do their part.
Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, was clearly miffed with White for what others called “grandstanding.” Tucker said other cuts were planned in the Legislature’s budget.
White withdrew his proposal before putting all of his House colleagues on the spot, and you could sense a collective sigh of relief.
Critics lining up
Conservative bloggers have used votes for that pay raise against legislators since 2008. Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, is one of the latest targets. He lost a recent election for family court judge in his hometown, and that vote could have played a part in his defeat.
Legislators haven’t had a pay increase since 1980, and incremental changes should have been made through the years. However, the 2008 proposal was so outrageous even the author changed it before the first vote took place.
Here is how the raise made it through the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Bobby Jindal:
Sen. Ann Duplessis, D-New Orleans, sponsored the bill. She first wanted to increase legislators’ base pay from $16,800 to $70,000. Duplessis cut that down to $50,700, a $33,900 increase, and got the measure out of committee.
That was still too high, but another feature made it even worse. Duplessis wanted the pay of state legislators to be 30 percent of what members of Congress were making, who were receiving $169,000 a year at the time.
If that had passed, legislators would have received automatic pay increases anytime congressmen got raises. And they receive them almost every year.
Even so, the Senate approved the bill 20-16, exactly the number of “yes” votes needed. And no one debated the bill on the Senate floor.
Sens. Dan “Blade” Morrish, RJennings, and Willie Mount, D-Lake Charles, voted against the increase. Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville, was recorded as absent.
The House votes for the raise weren’t there at first, so Tucker, who handled the bill, came up with a new proposal. It would have doubled legislative base pay to $37,500 a year, an increase of $20,700 over the existing $16,800 base pay.
Tucker’s amendment also tied the pay increase to the Consumer Price Index. Legislative pay would go up when the cost of living went up.
House members voted 56-45 to approve the pay increase. Rep. A.B. Franklin, D-Lake Charles, was the only representative from this corner of the state to support the increase. The bill then went back to the Senate for concurrence with the House changes.
Once again, the Senate gave the amended bill the 20 votes it needed. Smith voted to concur in the changes. Morrish and Mount were against.
Jindal said throughout the process that he opposed the increase, but insisted he wouldn’t veto the bill.
“I will keep my pledge to let them govern themselves and make their own decisions as a separate branch of government,” he said.
The governor did a complete turnaround when the bill reached his desk, and he vetoed the pay raise. He said he knew some legislators would be upset that he broke his word, and that may have been the understatement of 2008.
“Today, I am correcting my mistake,” he said.
Check winds first
The governor is good at reading and reacting to the public pulse. He reversed course on the pay raise issue and was cautious when repeal of the Stelly income tax changes was discussed. However, he supported the repeal when it was obvious the votes to do it were there.
Two legislators are trying this year to eliminate state income taxes, and Jindal has taken another waitand-see attitude before committing either way.
Everyone knows he doesn’t like taxes, but the governor has no problem raising college tuition.
Many Jindal supporters and opponents are still scratching their heads over his determination to veto renewal of a 4-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes. The governor needs to rethink that threat and admit — like he did in 2008 — that vetoing the bill would be a mistake. Meanwhile, the ghost of legislative days past is now out in the open. Yes, a vote for that 2008 pay raise was unwise, but it shouldn’t be the sole basis for judging the performance of state senators and representatives. Voters need to look at the complete record of their state legislators before heading to the polls this fall. They forgave Jindal when he admitted he made a mistake in 2008, and legislators deserve no less if they are willing to do the same.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].