Southwest Louisiana has only one legislative seat to be decided in the Nov. 19 general election, and the voters in three area parishes who will decide that race have two clear choices. They can turn back the clock by giving the Senate District 30 job to former legislator James David Cain or look to the future and re-elect Sen. John R. Smith, R-Leesville.
Cain, R-Dry Creek, over the last 40 years has managed to turn parttime legislative service into a comfortable $65,000 annual retirement from the teachers and state employees retirement systems. He drew his first teachers retirement check totaling over $44,000 in 1990 at age 51. In 2008, he began drawing an additional $13,000 annually by getting credit for nearly 15 years of Senate service from the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System.
State law was changed in 1976 that enabled Cain and others to switch their legislative service time to their teachers retirement systems. The loophole that Cain supported was closed the following year.
The Legislature submitted a constitutional amendment to the voters in 1996 that ended retirement eligibility for part-time elected officials, and it was approved 70-30 percent. However, Cain and others were exempted because they were already in the retirement system and were eligible for more retirement benefits.
Cain has offered the same excuse when confronted about his good fortune.
“I don’t make the rules, but I have to play by the rules,” he said. “If they change the rules as you go along, you still have to play by them.”
Well, that isn’t really the case. Many legislators from Southwest Louisiana had an opportunity before part-time retirement benefits ended in 1997 to take part in the state retirement system, but they declined. They accepted the fact they were part-time legislators who didn’t need to rip off an already-overburdened retirement system.
Smith is serving his first term in the Senate. He was a member of the House from 1988 to 2008.
Cain has tried to discredit Smith’s record by linking him to unpopular actions taken by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature, but only one has any real credibility. However, even on that one Cain is stretching the truth.
Smith didn’t vote — as Cain has alleged — in 2008 to raise legislators’ base pay from $16,800 to $50,700. He was recorded as absent when the bill cleared the Senate 20-16. The House trimmed the base pay to $37,500, a $20,700 increase over the current $16,800. Smith did vote to concur with the change, but Jindal vetoed the bill.
The Jindal administration raided a number of funds to help close a $1.6 billion state budget shortfall, and $33 million was taken from the claims fund of the Office of Group Benefits. Cain singles out Smith for going along with the plan when 139 of the other 143 legislators also approved the final budget. There were only two votes against.
Cain admits in one of his handouts that he is also a member of the Office of Group Benefits that handles health insurance claims for state employees and retirees. It’s another one of those plush benefits he enjoys because he had to — in his words — “play by the rules.”
Haven’t the taxpayers of Louisiana done enough for Cain? Must they again help him enhance his retirement benefits? Isn’t 20 years in the House and 16 years in the Senate long enough to ride the gravy train?
Smith did well in the Oct. 22 primary. He carried Beauregard, Calcasieu and Vernon parishes, but came up short of the majority needed for re-election. Smith finished with 45.7 percent of the vote, and Cain made the runoff with 29.7 percent.
Only 36.7 percent of the 60,885 registered voters in Senate District 30 went to the polls, and the odds are a much smaller percentage will vote Nov. 19. All state precincts will ballot on a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting real estate transfer taxes, but there are only a few local races on the ballots in Beauregard, Calcasieu and Vernon parishes. Most contests and propositions were decided Oct. 22.
The voter turnout for the Senate race was 39.8 percent in Beauregard, 27.3 percent in Calcasieu and 40.3 percent in Vernon.
The winner of the state Senate race will be the candidate who is able to get his supporters to the polls a week from Saturday. Statewide, only 30,000 people had cast early votes by midweek. That is one-fifth of the 160,000 who had voted by midweek prior to the primary.
Voters in Calcasieu Parish could make the difference in the Senate race on Nov. 19. Terry Fowler, their candidate, was eliminated. This is their opportunity to cast a vote for Smith, which would send a loud and clear message to Cain. It would be their way of telling him that, as taxpayers, they have already done too much to help Cain enjoy the easy life and that 36 years in the Legislature is more than enough.
Louisiana has come too far to turn back the pages. It’s time to derail the Cain gravy train.
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].