Forget everything you think you know about what's going on in Baton Rouge — and follow the money.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers are focusing on education this year — to say the least. The marathon of testimony and bills on the third day of the legislative session lasted more than 15 hours and gave Jindal nearly everything he wanted to remake the state's education system.
By the time legislators adjourn sine die in early June, however, we may learn that the session had a another purpose: to pad the salaries of public officials far and wide so that their take-home pay increases now. Talk about getting schooled.
If a tin foil hats fit more comfortably on our collective head, we might conclude it's a grand conspiracy. The topic of pay raises is definitely flying under the radar, given the treacherous education debate last week, the dire shape of the public retirement system and yet another budget shortfall following yet another midyear deficit.
But don't be fooled. Teachers, a wide range of state government employees, parish assessors, judges and sheriffs are in line to receive salary increases by a vote of the Legislature in the coming weeks.
Public sentiment could turn the tide, as it has in the past, but the timing of a potential pay raise is perfect. The next round of statewide elections is four years away — a virtual eternity in politics — and that gives rise to a handful of proposals currently under consideration.
The administration is orchestrating the first two. While teachers' unions generally hate Jindal's education package, the governor's plan does include opportunities for teachers to make more money. Also, for the first time in two years, the administration is permitting agencies to dole out pay raises — if they can find money in their existing budgets.
As for sheriffs, a pair of New Orleans Democrats are pushing a plan that links greater accountability with more money. Rep. Jeff Arnold's House Bill 408 creates the Louisiana Sheriffs' Executive Management Institute within the Office of the Governor, as does Sen. J.P. Morrell's Senate Bill 97. Both bills stipulate that sheriffs who complete the required training would be eligible for a salary increase. In an interesting twist, the sheriffs' pay hikes would be contingent on district court judges also getting a salary boost this session.
Arnold, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has that turn covered, too. He has filed House Bill 483 to grant judicial pay raises ranging from 1 percent to 4 percent. Judges currently earn $136,544 a year for district court, $142,447 annually for appeals court and $149,572 a year for state Supreme Court.
Arnold's proposal is based on the findings of a special state commission on judicial pay, and judges already are lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the pay raise bill.
Finally, there are the parish assessors. Public notices published earlier this year suggested that legislation would be filed to "authorize increases in compensation to tax assessors based on increases in the Consumer Price Index."
While the public notices were intended to alert everyone to the potential filing of a pay-raise bill for assessors, locating the specific bill has not been easy now than lawmakers are actually meeting. Lawmakers still have two more weeks to file bills. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 140 by Senate President John Alario would boost the overall budget of Jefferson Parish Assessor Tom Capella's office from $2,730,000 to $4,320,085 a year.
It's not a question of whether these public officials deserve the money. No doubt they work hard. It's more a question of priorities and reality.
Eventually (though perhaps not this year), lawmakers will consider a salary boost for themselves. Thanks to a constitutional amendment adopted in 2010, raises for lawmakers and statewide elected officials cannot take effect until the following term of office — which at least lets voters decide who gets the higher pay.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.