The Sheriffs’ Gravy Train Is Getting Back On Track At The Legislature

Louisiana sheriffs have come up with a clever plan that will ensure they get pay increases automatically on a fairly regular basis. The state Senate has already bought into the idea with a lopsided 36-1 vote. The House is the next stop for Senate Bill 97 that outlines the grand scheme.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, is the author of SB 97. You can’t help but love the creativity that went into the unique concept designed to give sheriffs pay raises when, “The Legislature has established a salary increase for, and appropriated funds for, salary increases for district court judges as provided by law.” Those words in quotes are taken directly from the last part of the Morrell bill.

State judges have been more successful over the years than any other group of public officials when it comes to their salaries. They have received 10 annual pay increases over the last 16 years. House Bill 483 by Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, in the current session would grant judges annual pay increases on July 1 this year and again on July 1, 2013.

Sheriffs in 2003 succeeded in linking their pay to judges’ salaries with the passage of Act 939. It set their pay limits at no more than the salaries of the judges of Criminal District Court in Orleans Parish, which at the time were just over $100,000 a year.

In 2003, sheriffs in East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Orleans parishes were making the same salaries as those judges. The three were in parishes that had populations greater than 400,000. The act said other sheriffs where the populations were 400,000 or less could be paid $20,000 less than the other three sheriffs were making.

The result of that act was a $15,000 annual pay increase for sheriffs in 53 parishes with populations of less than 100,000, who were making $65,000 a year in 2003. Sheriffs in eight parishes with populations between 100,000 and 400,000 got a $5,000 annual pay increase. Calcasieu Parish was in that category and those sheriffs had been making $75,000 a year.

Judges got raises in 2003, 2006 and in 2007, so sheriffs had authority to give themselves raises in those years if they had the money in their local sheriff ’s general fund.

Unfortunately for the sheriffs, other public officials got greedy in 2007 and the sheriffs lost their linkage to judges’ salaries. Two bills were filed that year seeking to also connect the salaries of parish clerks of court and tax assessors to the salaries of district court judges. That was too much for lawmakers, and they pulled the plug on sheriffs.

Act 422 of 2007 said, “The rate of annual compensation for all services required of sheriffs and ex officio tax collectors of the various parishes, including the civil and criminal sheriffs for the parish of Orleans, may only be increased by legislative act.” So the sheriffs were on their own again, having to fight for their pay increases.

The sheriffs’ gravy train had derailed, but Morrell’s measure this year is an attempt to put it back on track. And sheriffs have really dressed the legislation up in a neat package that appears to be simply a bill designed to improve the training of Louisiana sheriffs.

HB 97 creates the Louisiana Sheriffs Executive Management Institute in the office of the governor. Members of the five-person board that would run the training program would be composed of three current sheriffs appointed by the governor, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court or his designee and the chairman of the Louisiana Peace Officers Standards and Training Council, who also happens to be in law enforcement.

The grand plan calls for establishment of new sheriffs’ management and continuing education programs. Beginning Jan. 1, 2013, each person elected sheriff would have to complete the management program within a year after taking office, and each sheriff would have to complete 12 hours of continuing education within each 12-month period.

Sheriffs who do those things would then be eligible to receive salary increases anytime district court judges are given pay raises.

This legislation is clearly designed with one purpose in mind — better pay for sheriffs. How difficult or inconvenient can this 12 hours of training a year be since it would be designed for and created by the sheriffs themselves?

The Louisiana Sheriffs Association is regarded as the most effective lobbying organization in the state. Whatever sheriffs want, they usually get. And what they don’t want, rarely happens. Sheriffs last week, for example, opposed a bill that could establish term limits for local school board members.

Michael Ranatza, the association’s executive director, told a House committee the sheriffs’ opposition is based on the fact that setting term limits for one group of local officials could mean sheriffs or others might be targeted next. The bill got out of committee, but political observers don’t think it will get through the full House.

Sheriffs also have a friend in the governor’s mansion. Last year, their association endorsed the re-election of Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The issue here isn’t whether Louisiana sheriffs are doing a good job. Most of them are, and Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony Mancuso is definitely among that number. However, shouldn’t sheriffs, like the rest of us, have their salaries justified on their performance instead of riding the coattails of district judges? This latest maneuver is legislative trickery, pure and simple.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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