A small group of Louisiana legislators demonstrated at the recent session just how devious public officials can be at times. And public officials wonder why they are held in such low esteem.
The shenanigans we are talking about happened during the course of getting a bill through the legislative process that gave judges and sheriffs pay increases over the next five years.
Senate Bill 188 by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, was referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary
A. The legislation provides that state Supreme Court justices will receive a 5.5 percent pay increase on July 1. Court of appeal judges will get 3.7 percent raises, and district court, parish and city court judges will get a 4 percent boost. The legislation also provided that all of the state’s 372 judges would receive 2.1 percent raises every July 1 through 2017.
The legislation was reported favorably by the Judiciary Committee and recommitted to the Senate Finance Committee. That committee added an amendment and sent the measure to the full Senate.
Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, added a floor amendment to the legislation when it came up for debate. It said any salary adjustments “resulting from this act shall only apply to judges and shall not apply to any other public officer whose salary is set in accordance with the judge’s salary.” The amendment targeted parish sheriffs who in 2012 linked their salaries to those of the state’s judges.
Senators then voted 27-9 to approve the bill and send it to the House. Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, and Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, voted against the increases. Johns said the timing wasn’t right. Morrish said it wasn’t fair since state employees haven’t had merit increases for six years.
The bill was referred to the House Appropriations Committee, where two senators pushing the pay increase and officials with the Louisiana Sheriffs Association made their moves.
Martiny and Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, a perennial champion of the judiciary, told members of the committee the $2.5 million needed for the July 1 pay increases would come from the budget approved for the state judiciary. They promised that no extra money would come from the state general fund.
Michael Renatza, executive director of the sheriffs association, said no state dollars were involved in the sheriffs’ increases. He added that sheriffs would have to complete 12 hours of in-service training that is designed to make sure sheriffs earned their raises.
The committee was more than happy to oblige by approving an amendment re-linking the sheriffs salaries to the pay of judges. There was no opposition, and the silence was deafening.
Then, came an opportunity to debate the amended bill. Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, was the only member of the committee to question the pay increases. The raises were promoted as a way to get judges pay up to the Southern average. Schroder said spending on higher education and in other budget areas isn’t up the Southern average, so what about them?
Schroder got no straight answer to his question, and the bill was approved 18-0 and sent to the full House.
The legislation came up for a vote on June 3, and it was approved 79-16 without debate. None of those 79 legislators was ready to take on the two most powerful lobbying groups at the state Capitol. Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, was the only Southwest Louisiana House member to vote against the increases. He said it wasn’t a reflection on the performance of judges or sheriffs, but not a good financial move in light of state finances.
Martiny’s bill then had to return to the Senate because of the changes made by the House.
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee heard House Bill 691, the measure funding the judiciary. It was there that the deception took place. The funding measure was amended to add $2.5 million in state general fund money to cover the pay increases, something that Martiny and Murray told members of the House Appropriations Committee wouldn’t happen.
Several House members objected to the change when HB 691 returned to the full House for concurrence. Schroder said the pay raise bill wouldn’t have made it out of the appropriations committee in the form it did if lawmakers had known the money was coming from the state and not from judges finding efficiencies in their own operations.
“I feel like we were misled in committee,” he said.
Schroder is being kind. Legislators were the victims of doubledealing, and they knew it. Still, they voted 63-29 to approve the appropriation for the judiciary that contained the additional $2.5 million needed for those pay increases. Geymann and Rep. Frank Howard, R-Many, were the only two area legislators to vote against the amended bill.
Supreme Court justices will be making $172,343 a year after they get their last 2.1 percent increase in 2017. Appeal court judges will be paid $161,275 annually, and district court judges will receive $155,279.
Compared to most state workers, judges have done well over the last 18 years. They have received pay increases in 11 of those years that averaged 4.7 percent a year. And they can breathe easier for the next five years, thanks to a bit of trickery by a handful of legislators. The plotters deceived their colleagues, and a majority of them let it happen.