It’s OK, So Long As You Follow The Rules

Legislators have to wrap up their regular session by 6 p.m. Monday, and a number of items are still up in the air. However, it’s amazing how many loose ends will be tied up by final adjournment.

Meanwhile, a few observations from the session are in order.

Gov. Bobby Jindal “struck while the iron was hot” when he got his education reform program approved early in the session. However, it’s still not a done deal. The governor is having some problems with his well-touted retirement changes, but his public relations machine knows how to paint glowing pictures of any gains. Finally, the Jindal forces will use whatever legislative tactics are necessary to achieve their goals.

The education changes included approval of an expanded school voucher program that gives students from low-income families more school choices, revision of the teacher tenure law and easier approval of new charter schools. Each was controversial, but Jindal prevailed. Even so, his voucher program came close to collapse on Friday when House members amended the Minimum Foundation Program that funds public education in Louisiana.

The Senate sent the $3.4 billion MFP resolution to the House with a 26-10 vote. The hang-up in the House was the fact the MFP for the first time in history provides state and local funds for students to attend private and parochial schools. They would be able to use those vouchers that Jindal prefers to call Student Scholarships for Education Excellence.

Local school boards and their state representatives aren’t happy about the loss of local education funds. So debate was hot and heavy. You could see the frustration on the face of Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who steered the reform program through the House. The MFP was amended, which sent it back to the Senate with the exact 53-49 vote it needed.

The Senate rejected the House amendments, which sends the issue to a conference committee to iron out the differences. The committee report will probably be approved today or tomorrow. If not, the MFP would have to go back to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that drew it up.

BESE wouldn’t have enough time to come up with a revised formula before adjournment, and that could mean a special session, or last year’s MFP would be in place. Last year’s formula doesn’t have the voucher provision, and that would stymie the scholarship program.

On another major issue, the governor’s overhaul of the state’s debt-ridden retirement system has struggled throughout the session. The first major change to be approved came only last week. It creates a cash balance retirement system for new employees that is similar to a 401(k). Only two of the four major state retirement systems are targeted in the new plan. Other retirement measures are still awaiting House action.

Despite the uncertainty of the other bills, the extremely efficient Jindal public relations effort went into high gear with passage of the cash balance plan. And that is a unique feature of this governor’s method of operation. Give the administration a hard time, and it is quick to respond and challenge opponents. When it wins one, the success story gets glowing praise.

An administration e-mail message described the cash balance vote as a “game-changer for the state.” It added, “There has not been a more significant reform to Louisiana’s pension system in decades.”

The e-mail also quoted the Associated Press, but left out an important detail. The message said, “With passage, Louisiana is set to become the first state in the nation to provide only the ‘cash balance’ retirement plan for state employees.”

What the e-mail left out of the AP report was the following sentence in the original news story that said, “Nebraska has such a plan — but also includes its employees in the federal Social Security system. Louisiana state employees aren’t in Social Security.”

Critics of the Louisiana legislation said that is a flaw because state employees are going to have a difficult time living off their cash balance account without something like Social Security to give them some earnings backup in their retirement years. Trying to live off only the cash balance plan isn’t going to be easy. Their average annual pension under a better plan they enjoy now is only $22,000.

The state is going to save money, of course, and that’s what it’s all about. What a shame the state didn’t live up to its obligations much earlier by properly funding retirement systems during the boom years.

The Jindal forces pulled some slick legislative maneuvers during the session. They rewrote retirement bills at the last minute, attached a significant 48-page retirement bill onto a 3-page non-controversial measure to bypass a Senate committee hearing and combined two capital construction bills at the last minute. The last one puts House members on the spot. If they object to the rewritten bill, they could lose construction projects in their areas.

It’s all fair and square, according to the rules, but something about the process seems rather distasteful. However, when winning at all costs is your goal, you do what you have to do. And members of the Jindal administration have made it clear they have no reservations and make no excuses for their actions.

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].

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