BEAM: Money And Raises Are Two Major Issues As Session Closes

The Legislature has only two weeks to go in its current session, and that is when lawmakers shift into desperation mode. Two major goals haven’t been accomplished. Next year’s budget needs some extra cash, and the state’s judges would like to have guaranteed pay raises for the next five years.

Let’s begin with the money shortage.

Governors, legislators and local public officials looking for extra revenues laying around know they can always count on the Sly Fox to find some. We are speaking, of course, of Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and the longest serving member of the Louisiana Legislature.

Alario was first elected to the House in 1972 where he served nine four-year terms. When he was term-limited in 2008, he ran for the state Senate and is now in his second four-year term. He is the only state legislator who has served two terms as speaker of the House and as president of the Senate.

Although he becomes term-limited in the Senate in 2020, Alario has joked on occasion that he would be back in the House that same year. Knowing him as long as I have, I’m not counting him out.

Alario has held every key position in both houses. He knows all the tricks of the legislative trade, and he never hesitates to use anything at his disposal. The old pro has come up with a brash and imaginative — though questionable — effort to produce a sorely needed $87.3 million for the 2013-14 fiscal year beginning July 1.

Senate Bill 226 by Alario is awaiting action on the Senate floor. It repeals Section 4 of Act 597 of 2012. If the section isn’t repealed, $113.2 million in excess revenue collections would have to be deposited into the Rainy Day Fund from which legislators have withdrawn money to meet budget shortfalls.

Alario’s legislation provides for the state treasury to transfer $87.3 million of that excess (surplus) money from the state general fund into the Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund, another constitutional use of one-time (non-recurring) money. The bill says the treasury must then transfer a different $87.3 million (recurring revenues) from the coastal fund into the state general fund to be used during the budget year beginning July 1.

Did you get that one? I suppose you could call it the old “switcheroo.”

The fiscal note on the bill gets to the core of what Alario wants to do.

“The proposed legislation effectively allows $87.3 million of the Fiscal Year 2012 surplus to be appropriated in the Fiscal Year 2013 operational budget,” the note says.

As you can see, there is no obstacle Alario can’t clear or any hurdle so high he can’t jump it. He doesn’t want to do an end run around the constitution; he wants to blow a big hole right in the middle of it to produce some quick cash for a budget that needs a major transfusion.

Can he pull it off ? Don’t bet any money that he can’t.

Now, the judges.

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, is chairman of the Judicial Compensation Commission that has recommended state judges be given raises for the next five years. Supreme Court justices who are making over $150,000 a year would receive a 5.5 percent increase (over $8,000) on July 1. Appeal court judges who are making over $143,000 would receive a 3.7 percent increase (over $5,300). District court judges who are making over $137,000 would get a 4 percent increase (over $5,500).

All of the judges would then receive 2.1 percent increases annually through 2017. By that time, Supreme Court justices would be making over $172,000 a year, appeal court judges over $161,000 and district court judges over $155,000.

The fiscal note on SB 188 says there are 372 judges (7 Supreme Court, 53 appellate judges, 218 district judges, 94 city/parish judges) in the state that would be impacted by the bill.

The Senate voted 27-9 to approve the increases. The House Appropriations Committee takes up the legislation Tuesday.

Supporters of the raises say judges haven’t had an increase since 2010. The Legislature voted in 2007 to give judges pay raises in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Martiny said he knows it’s hard for legislators to vote for pay raises, but it’s “important to maintain the quality of our judges.”

Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, and a longtime champion of judges, said, “It really is appropriate to do this.”

The two senators from this corner of the state said otherwise. Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, and Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, were among the nine senators who opposed the judicial pay increase.

Johns said judges need compensation for their work, but “the timing wasn’t right.”

Morrish said he doesn’t question the performance or the work ethic of judges, but other state workers haven’t received a raise in six years. He said some of their wages are below the poverty line.

So there you have it. However, two questions still remain: Can Alario pull off his revenue caper, and will judges get their pay raises? Probably, but stay tuned.

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