Pay Increases Don’t Stand A Chance With Next Year’s Legislature

A special commission studying the possibility of giving the state’s judges a pay raise next year should save its time and money. The odds of getting the Legislature to give anyone a pay increase in 2012 are slim to none.

The Legislature faced a $1.6 billion budget hole earlier this year and Gov. Bobby Jindal and his administration and lawmakers raided virtually every special fund in the state to balance the budget. That money is gone, and the budget crunch next year is supposed to continue to the tune of $1 billion or more.

State employees haven’t had an across-the-board raise for a long time, and their annual 4 percent merit increases have been suspended for three years. How can those in the upper income ranks even think about a pay increase?

The Judicial Compensation Commission took the high road back in February when it voted against recommending even small increases for the judiciary at the 2011 legislative session. However, it decided in October to hire an economist to update a report he did last year that compared Louisiana judges’ pay to the Southern and national averages.

State Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, is a member of the commission. He was vocal about the need to pursue a judicial pay increase next year.

“I would not like to see us do nothing for the second year in a row,” Marionneaux said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen to the judiciary as what’s happened to the Legislature.”

Marionneaux is speaking, of course, about the Legislature’s inability over the years to increase the pay of its members. A 2008 pay increase was approved by both houses, but it was vetoed by Jindal. Marionneaux voted to increase legislators’ pay from $16,800 to $50,700 a year the first time around and later for an annual salary of $37,500 after the original bill was amended by the House.

Joe Toomy, commission chairman and a former state representative, said it’s difficult to tell what the climate will be at next year’s legislative session. It was Toomy who handled most of the judges’ eight pay increases that were approved over the last 11 years. The annual raises in the 5 percent range came in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Five percent increases may not seem like much, but another boost by that amount for district judges totals over $6,800 per year.

District judges receive $136,544 in base pay annually. It’s $142,447 for appeal court judges and $149,572 for justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Benefits like retirement, Medicare, health insurance and office and travel expenses for each judge exceed over $20,000 a year.

Economist Loren Scott said back in February if the Southern average is the goal, district judges by 2015 would make $151,041, appeal court judges, $159,483 and Supreme Court justices, $164,540. Louisiana judges could still reach that level by 2015 without a pay raise in 2012.

Members of the judiciary should consider themselves fortunate to have received pay increases for eight out of 11 years. Other state officials can’t make that claim. Statewide officials got pay increases in 2007, but the governor still receives only $130,000 a year. The other six receive $115,000 annually.

Judges have been so successful, sheriffs linked their annual salaries to judges in 2003, a connection that was repealed in 2007. Parish clerks of court and assessors also wanted their salaries tied to judicial pay, but the idea was rejected.

Often overlooked is the fact Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the nation. Statistics from 2008 reveal the state ranked second nationally in the number of people living below the poverty level. The 17.3 percent of the population living in poverty tied with Arkansas and Kentucky. Only Mississippi at 21.2 percent was higher, and that put our neighboring state in the No. 1 position.

The Times-Picayune in a Wednesday editorial took a tough stand on judicial pay increases.

“The bottom line is simple: Taxpayers can’t afford a judicial pay raise now, so forget about it,” the newspaper said.

Legislators haven’t had an increase in their base pay since 1980, a span of 31 years. Even so, when the 2008 pay raise was approved, citizen outrage forced a gubernatorial veto. People are still hollering about that one, and it has cost some lawmakers their jobs.

If the economy improves after next year and other state officials and workers can get a reasonable pay increase, then maybe judges could come in for some consideration. However, the sad state of the current economy that is wiping out the lifetime savings of many Americans clearly demonstrates that this isn’t the time to talk about judicial or any other pay raises.

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