BEAM: Judges And Sheriffs Make Powerful Lobbying Duo

Sheriffs and judges have perhaps the two most effective lobbying groups in Louisiana state government. When they unite for a cause at the Legislature that benefits them both, even the governor has to be somewhat jealous of their political stroke.

Observers saw the full impact of that united front here this week when the House Appropriations Committee approved a five-year pay increase for state judges without objection.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, sounded as though he questioned the wisdom of giving pay increases at a time when the state is facing disabling budget cuts. However, he wasn’t there when the committee approved the raises. Others were also missing.

You would think out of the 25 members on that committee there would be others who also think giving judges a guaranteed five-year pay increase at this financially troubling time is a bad idea. If any felt that way, they certainly weren’t ready to put their necks on the line.

The sheriffs came into the picture because they want to keep their pay raises tied to the increases given judges. If the judges get a raise, sheriffs get one, too.

Sheriffs got their wish back in 2003, but lost the linkage in 2007. Last year, their salaries were, once again, tied to the compensation of judges.

Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, had other ideas when this year’s judicial pay raise came up for a vote of the full Senate. He offered a successful floor amendment that said any salary adjustments resulting from the bill would apply to judges only and to no one else.

The lobbying machinery of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association went into high gear in an effort to derail Amedee’s plans. The payoff came Tuesday.

Rep. Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas, offered an amendment during the Appropriations Committee hearing that stripped Amedee’s Senate amendment from the judicial pay raise bill. You could hear a pin drop when the committee was asked if there were any objections to her amendment. There were none.

The deed was done, and it appears the raises will have fairly smooth sailing from here on out.

Other aspects of this pay raise issue deserve additional comment.

Some presidents of home rule parishes will also get a pay raise if the judges clear their remaining hurdles. Those presidents enjoy a linkage similar to the sheriffs.

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, sponsor of the judicial raise legislation, and others stressed during debate that the money for the judges’ pay increases would come from their own budget, not from the state general fund.

What they don’t say is that most of the judicial budget comes from the state general fund. This year’s legislation for the judiciary, for example, contains total funding of $165 million, and $144.8 million of that comes from the state general fund.

So what’s the difference? Supporters of the pay raises will tell you judges won’t take any additional money out of the general fund, but it’s an awfully weak argument in support of pay increases when you already have $165 million with which to work.

Sheriffs aren’t the only local officials to benefit from pay increases. Clerks of court during this session have already received approval to raise their pay by 4 percent annually for the next four years.

Parish tax assessors are also in line for raises. A bill giving them 4 percent annual raises for the next four years has passed the Senate and is up for debate today in the House.

Whenever local raises are discussed at legislative sessions, we always hear the same story. It isn’t state money, but is coming from local funds.

Where, exactly, do they think those local officials get those funds?

The money comes from local taxpayers and those who use the services of those offices. Sheriffs also have sales taxes to help fund their operations. In the final analysis, the people pick up most of the tabs. So spare us that same old song and dance.

Yes, public officials should be justly compensated for their services. However, what about the thousands of state employees who haven’t had a raise in six years? Don’t they also deserve a fair wage?

How about those residents who pleaded with senators a week ago to fund care for disabled children?

Family members of developmentally disabled children who require around-the-clock care asked lawmakers to add $4 million to include 200 more people in a program that pays for at-home and community-based care. They said 10,000 people are on a waiting list for services. Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn’t like to increase taxes to fund vital public services, so it will be interesting to see how he views these pay raises. Those judicial pay increases alone are going to cost $8 million over the next five years.

Size this pay raise situation up any way you want, but it still comes down to just one word — priorities. When they vote, legislators should be asking themselves if pay increases deserve a higher priority than the many other pressing needs of state government?

A majority in the Legislature — at least up to this point — apparently believes raises are more important.

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