Timing is everything. When the state Senate voted last week, by a margin of 20-18, for a more-than-200-percent increase in legislative pay in the face of loud, consistent and crystal-clear opposition from citizens statewide most voters no doubt concluded that their elected representatives live in a vacuum. At a time when gasoline prices rise daily, the national unemployment rate creeps upward and the stock market continues to falter, most taxpayers are tightening their household budgets, not expecting large pay raises. Not so for our elected legislators and Gov. Bobby Jindal.
State lawmakers have turned a deaf ear to the people's will. Had they been listening to their constituents and we're not talking about, as Sen. Ann Duplessis suggested, "a few radio people" they would have known that this is not the time for a raise. Newspapers, blogs, radio and television stations and average folk have railed against this proposal. Now they are just plain angry, and their anger is justified.
This pay raise represents legislative self-interest at its worst. The current session ends this Monday (June 23), and the raise goes into effect next week, on July 1. That's like going on vacation and finding out that your paycheck more than doubled while you weren't looking except, in this case, lawmakers engineered the raise.
To be fair, we recognize that opposing a legislative pay increase is playing to the bleachers. We said as much more than two months ago ("An Unpopular Cause," April 8), noting that we support a modest hike in legislators' base pay as long as it's prospective. That is, any raise should take effect after the next round of statewide elections. That's not what happened.
In the years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, state lawmakers have worked longer and harder, attended more special sessions and must be more available than ever to address constituents' concerns. Their base pay of $16,800 has not increased since 1980, although they did give themselves a $6,000 "unvouchered expense allowance" in the late 1990s. This issue isn't solely about money, however; it's about timing.
According to legislative staffers, the salary bump will cost roughly $3.4 million in fiscal year 2009. The cost will grow slightly each succeeding year, thanks to "automatic" annual raises (pegged to the Consumer Price Index) that were written into the pay raise legislation. That amount doesn't seem like much in comparison to a total state budget of more than $30 billion. Moreover, when adjusted for inflation, lawmakers' $16,800 base pay in 1980 translates to $44,167 in 2008 dollars. While there are solid arguments for a legislative pay hike, the timing of this raise stinks. What lawmakers should have done is increase their base salary effective January 2012 the beginning of the next legislative term.
Where lawmakers have failed, Gov. Bobby Jindal must lead. He must veto this mess of a bill. He has until July 8 to do so. More important, he must keep his promise, as stated in his 2007 campaign, to "prohibit legislators from giving themselves pay raises" during a current term.
The question is, will he?
Jindal, in now-trademark fashion, is ducking the press and the public on this issue while saying "no" to voters through his press secretary. In a press release last week, the governor cited a promise (read: political deal) he made with legislative leaders on this issue: "I will keep my pledge to let them govern themselves and make their own decisions as a separate branch of government." In other words, Jindal's recent promise to a few dozen politicians trumps his earlier promise to millions of Louisiana citizens. On top of that, Jindal's statement utterly ignores his constitutional authority and duty to use his veto power to rein in legislative excesses such as this.
Why won't Jindal "man up" and do the right thing? Simple: He cut a political deal, and now he feels a misplaced sense of honor to uphold it. What else is the public to conclude when the young governor issues a press release saying he won't block a legislative pay raise and the next day the Senate Finance Committee restores $110 million that the House had stripped from his budget? Ironically, some of those "restored" funds include massive pay scales for top Jindal appointees.
In politics, one hand washes the other while the voters get soaked. That's business as usual in Louisiana the kind of business Jindal promised to eliminate.
The governor has two weeks to do the right thing, which means voters have two weeks to pound him with calls and emails. Call him toll-free at 866-366-1121. Email him via the "interact" menu on his Web site (www.gov.louisiana.gov). Tell him to keep his promise to those who put him into office.
And if he doesn't, then throw him out in 2011 along with the others who refused to listen when the people spoke.