John Bel’s Pay-Raise Inequality Mess

This week there were two controversial items, both involving pay raises, surrounding the decidedly rocky start Gov. John Bel Edwards has had to his second term.

The most current of the controversies involves some significant profit-taking Edwards’ top staffers appear to be in for, as he’s scheduling a million bucks in pay increases for 150 positions near the top of his administration…

Entering a second term without the budget woes of his first, Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to dole out nearly $1 million in pay raises to his staff, Cabinet secretaries and other high-level political appointees across state government.

The Edwards administration on Thursday provided The Associated Press with a list of more than 150 top-level political appointees who have already received or are in line to receive the salary hikes. State lawmakers also received the list.

The Democratic governor’s chief financial adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, mentioned the raises in his presentation of Edwards’ budget recommendations for the upcoming 2020-21 year, describing it to lawmakers as a “small increase.” The AP received the list after asking Dardenne’s office for specific details.

Dardenne said the “unclassified employees” across Louisiana state government hadn’t received pay raises over the governor’s first term, even as other rank-and-file civil service workers did. He said most of the increases are 4%.

Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens said the pay hikes represent a “tiny fraction of the overall state budget.”

She said they “were included as part of the governor’s budget proposal only after two years of budget stability and an improved economic outlook for the state.”

More than a third of the raises — about $368,000 in yearly salary hikes for governor’s office workers and employees in Edwards’ Division of Administration — started the day after the governor was sworn in to his new term in January, according to information provided by the division.

For example, Edwards’ top lawyer Matthew Block’s salary grew from $180,000 to $187,200 on Jan. 14, according to the data. Pay for the governor’s top coastal adviser, Chip Kline, rose from $165,000 a year to $171,600 at the same time. And the salary for Edwards’ deputy chief of staff for programs and planning, Adren Wilson, was raised from $125,000 to $150,000.

Another $553,000 in annual pay bumps for Cabinet secretaries and their chief deputies will take effect July 1 with the start of the new budget year, if lawmakers agree to the increases in next year’s budget.

For example, under the budget plan, the salary for Veterans Affairs Secretary Joey Strickland would rise from $130,000 to $140,000; Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc’s pay would grow from $136,700 to $150,400 a year; and Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson would receive $194,600 a year, up from $176,900.

LeBlanc getting a pay raise while the state’s Department of Corrections is an unholy shambles of corruption and incompetence is the real story here, though also worth noting is the governor’s chief of staff Mark Cooper has refused a pay raise, which should give Cooper a bit of a pass.

But the other controversial item surfaced earlier in the week in the governor’s executive budget, in which he broke a promise to give teachers a pay raise.

In what should be a surprise to no one in the fifth year of the John Bel Edwards administration, the 2020 budget proposal from the governor’s office includes no direct plan to increase teachers’ pay this year.

However, it came as a surprise to teachers, many of whom felt that when Edwards said the last teacher pay raise was good but not enough, and when he mentioned after his election that another pay increase was on the table, he was making a campaign promise he intended to keep. Many teachers, and even Edwards’ top allies in the unions, are upset and even angry with Edwards over this.

His way of explaining it away is saying that this proposal would send more money to the districts, who in turn would use it to increase teacher pay. This is a very good idea that would be wonderful in a perfect world where education funding and spending was immaculate and the right things got paid for. But, because education is a bureaucratic nightmare from top to bottom, that perfect world does not exist.

Instead, you’ll likely see school board announcements of new and upgraded facilities, key administrative hires, and maybe even opening an entirely new school here or there in order to meet the needs of growing student populations. You will, in a majority of parishes, probably not see significant pay raises for teachers (if you see any at all).

And Edwards knows this, which is why he’s scapegoating the districts. He is pre-emptively putting the blame on them and when teachers get angry that they don’t see more money in their paychecks , they’ll attack the school boards instead of him.

The teachers are still furious at Edwards for breaking that promise, and lots of Republicans on social media and talk radio and elsewhere have been trolling them relentlessly over the broken promise.

Which is somewhat unseemly, but you can’t blame the trolls. Louisiana’s teachers, on balance, have behaved abysmally where it comes to politics for well better than two decades now.

Frankly, it’s hard to get too torqued up about Edwards’ proposal to shoot more money to school districts in lieu of a pay raise. Several things are true.

First, teachers do not work for the state of Louisiana. They work for local school districts. If those school districts don’t do right by their employees, they deserve to have those employees pick up and leave, either for different jobs or for different school districts. It’s always been a poor structure to have state government stepping in and dropping money out of helicopters on teachers; that vacates the responsibility of the local school boards, which in Louisiana are some of the worst repositories of crooks and clowns in all of America.

They’re crooks and clowns because they can afford to be. Everything flows to them from the state capitol building.

Second, teachers just got a pay raise. It was tiny, but it was what they wanted. They could have had a larger one, which Republicans in the state legislature offered to them last year, but they failed to support it. So Edwards’ promise notwithstanding, there isn’t any apparent need for a teacher pay raise – according to the teachers.

Third, are Louisiana’s schools getting better? That’s debatable; it might best be said that Louisiana’s schools are stagnant while schools elsewhere in America are rapidly getting worse. Of course, when you’re already close to the bottom nobody would notice your decline. Either way, it’s hard to say that on the whole the teaching profession is doing a better job in Louisiana which would merit higher pay.

If we’re going to be 48th in outcomes, and we’re told that because of poverty and bad parenting and all these other factors we can’t get above that number, then the rational conclusion is that we should be 48th in spending, so as to shepherd our money into things like roads, jails, tax cuts and other items which might be more likely to produce improved results.

So from a public policy perspective, what Edwards is proposing isn’t outrageous. It probably would be better if he’d done nothing at all, because the more the state continues subsidizing something which isn’t a state function the more warped and dysfunctional Louisiana is from a structural standpoint. But nobody with a brain expects John Bel Edwards to fix that.

Politically, though, it’s hard to find any sympathy for anybody here. Not for the teachers, who overwhelmingly voted for Edwards and whose unions slathered him with campaign cash, inflicting four more years of horrid governance on a state which desperately needed something different.

And certainly not for Edwards, who made his own bed. He looks more and more like a Marie Antoinette flitting about the governor’s mansion and pronouncing of the poor plebes he suckered into voting for him, “Let them eat cake.” If he ends up about as popular as Marie was, we couldn’t care less.



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