CUNNINGHAM: The Advocate’s Dishonest Slam On The Legislature Is Just Bad Journalism

The best-case scenario on this story at The Advocate is that there is a disconnect between the reporter and the headline writer, but honestly it comes across as way more likely that from the get-go, this story was meant to outrage people, despite being not that outrageous.

If you were scrolling through social media, you’d see the headline “Louisiana lawmakers missed 49 days because of coronavirus, but they’ll share full $2M in per diem” and immediately be outraged, right? Of course you would. If you’re conservative-minded, you’d be disappointed at wasted spending on a legislative body that hasn’t really done much. If you’re progressive-minded, you’d think the Republican-led legislature is a bunch of hypocrites who talk about reducing spending, but not their own pay.

The problem is that the headline does not match the reality here. Here’s how the story starts out.

This year’s legislative session may not have convened every day, but lawmakers are receiving the full $1.98 million in per diem payments – even though the State Capitol was closed for 49 days because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Each of the 144 lawmakers receives $161 for each day the Legislature is in session. That’s on top of their $16,800 annual salary.

The per diem payments, which will total $13,865 per legislator for the 2020 Regular Legislative Session, are to reimburse lawmakers for expenses while in Baton Rouge, according to the law. Legislators also receive up to $6,000 annually for unvouchered expenses and some receive mileage for their drive to and from Baton Rouge.

The problem is that they buried the lede beneath a slate of all Republican interviews.

During the missing 49 days lawmakers were paid about $7,889 – or about $1.2 million for the entire body – because the Legislature was considered “in recess,” like what happens on weekends in usual gatherings.

But more to the point, says Senate President Page Cortez, the state Constitution specifically prohibits the reduction of an elected public official’s compensation during the elected term. “To withhold per diem prior to the sine die of the session would be a direct violation of the Constitution and state law,” Cortez, R-Lafayette, said Wednesday.

So after you’ve been made to be pissed off about the legislative pay… then they drop the tidbit that “Oh… you can’t not pay that out.”

The thing is, Cortez is right. You cannot change legislative pay during their elected term. It’s a rule meant to keep them from paying themselves more for no reason, but that also means they can’t cancel any pay. That could, in theory, be weaponized, too. So it’s a good rule.

The problem is that you don’t get this information at all until halfway through the story, and the headline and framing of the story lead you to believe it’s hypocrisy and greed rather than law. That’s not right.

The story also notes that one legislator donated his pay to charity.

State Rep. Michael Echols, R-Monroe, told The Ouachita Citizen newspaper that he had collected $10,414 in per diem payments and travel outlays during the recess. He donated the money to a University of Louisiana at Monroe scholarship.

He’s made to look like an outlier, when we know that there are more like him. Take Julie Emerson, a member of the Acadiana delegation.

I wasn't planning to share this at all, but since there is now a news story about it–what the article failed to mention…

Posted by Julie Emerson on Wednesday, May 6, 2020

She asked for the suspension, but when it wasn’t given for a few of the days, she donated the money. Did the writer of this story ask around for any other examples? It is difficult to imagine that a legislature with several small-government conservatives would have only two who tried to (or did) forgo their per diem when they weren’t actually in session.

Here’s the kicker, though: None of these legislators have come out and said they weren’t doing anything during this recess. Many have been fielding constituent calls, traveling, and working despite not being in Baton Rouge. Sure, they have a salary as well as the per diem, but there is extra work that goes into prepping for a legislative session.

It seems pretty clear, though, that this is a classic case of clickbait. The headline is meant to draw you in with a questionable (at best) premise. Then, you read the story already pissed, but there is nothing in the story that is nearly as outrageous as the headline and lede led you to believe.

That’s irresponsible, and it’s flirting with being fake news. It’s technically correct, but the truth is far more nuanced than a hostile report in the papers would have you believe.

How do I know it’s hostile? Tyler Bridges had a hand in the story It says so right there at the bottom.

Staff writers Tyler Bridges and Will Sentell contributed to this report.

Imagine that. The governor’s stenographer was involved.



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