There may be a special interest or two behind the curtain, but Gov. Bobby Jindal is clearly the guy pulling the strings and turning the wheels when it comes to the latest attempt to change Louisiana's pension laws. If Jindal were not so heavily involved, it's doubtful the issue would have the momentum it has — and you can bet he'll take credit if any kind of retirement reform passes legislative muster.
The governor accepted several alterations to his retirement proposals last week, just days before some of them were scheduled to be heard in the Senate and House retirement committees. Chief among the changes was one that made sure the proposed reforms would apply to Jindal. Earlier versions exempted statewide elected officials, which caused quite a stir and gave some traction to critics of Jindal's proposals.
But besides the governor, who else is involved in the push to rewrite the retirement rules for public employees in Louisiana? If you believe the National Public Pension Coalition, which has voiced opposition to Jindal's plan, it's the so-called "one percenters."
Here's what the group says about Louisiana's plan and others like it around the country: "These public pension-cutting plans come at the very time politicians (who receive world-class benefits themselves) have teamed up with Wall Street-aligned groups ... to malign and scapegoat America's firefighters, police officers, teachers and nurses in hopes of filling budgeting shortfalls caused by Wall Street greed and corporate malfeasance."
Jindal's plan would boost public employees' retirement age to 67, calculate benefits based on five years of salary rather than three, increase employee retirement contributions from 8 percent to 11 percent of base pay, and create a cash balance retirement plan (for new employees only), which is more akin to a 401K plan than the "defined benefit" that state workers now get.
Perhaps Wall Streeters would benefit from this plan, but with so many changes already — and possibly more to come — it's difficult to tell who'll really win.
What's more certain is the role of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and State Budget Solutions. According to sources close to the process, representatives from both groups traveled to Louisiana last month to break bread at Prejean's with House Retirement Chairman Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell, and Senate Retirement Chairman Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas.
Founded in 1973, ALEC promotes conservative principles like "free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty." While its voting membership consists exclusively of elected state legislators, other members hail from companies like Pfizer and ExxonMobil. Bringing such interests to the policy table has drawn criticism for ALEC, but its influence can't be disputed. Roughly 200 of the group's "model" bills become law each year, such as Arizona's controversial immigration law.
In an email to Louisiana lawmakers, representatives from ALEC and State Budget Solutions, a conservative-leaning nonprofit, suggested parroting the success-ful retirement reform efforts adopted in Utah in 2010.
The "lessons learned in Utah" included:
• "Ask hard questions, demand data."
• "Be hypothesis-driven/avoid ideology."
• "Be kind, polite and responsive."
• "Keep moving forward."
• "Demand comprehensive, long-term financial modeling from pension actuaries."
• "Reality is not negotiable; let the data do the work."
• "Future employees are not an effective lobbying force, so if nothing else, change future plans."
• "Know the details and you will own the issue."
If you hear a mix of these mantras during the retirement debates, there's a good chance it's part of a strategy that was crafted by many hands — even if only the hands of our governor are visible.
At the end of the day, the biggest influencers may be the 60,000 members of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System (LASERS). More than any other group, they stand to gain or lose the most, depending on how you interpret Jindal's plan. But if they manage to stick together and stay focused, their collective voice could become the loudest mantra of all.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.