Jim Beam column:Pay is big deal at Legislature

Published 10:30 am Sunday, May 7, 2023

By Jim Beam

American Press

Pay has become a major issue at the current session of the Louisiana Legislature. State Supreme Court justices and judges, lawmakers, and the men and women working low-level jobs all over this state are involved.

I had other plans for this column today, but when I read about the disturbing events at the Legislature last week dealing with people’s pay the plans changed.

Let’s begin with those high court justices and judges. Chief Justice John Weimer and associate Justices Jefferson Hughes and James Genovese were involved in legislative developments.

At issue Wednesday was the Judicial Supplemental Compensation Fund, according to a report in The Advocate that called it “an entity that is little known to the public but very important for the justices and judges.”

The compensation fund gets money from $27.50 paid when every civil court case is filed across the state. The fund is overseen by one Supreme Court justice and four lower level judges who decide how much the state’s justices and judges receive in supplemental pay.

The current rate is $950 per month. And the higher the pay for justices and judges, the more money they also collect when they retire.

State Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was sponsoring House Bill 589. The legislation had three goals:

One was to abolish the five-member judicial board and have the judicial administrator, appointed by the chief justice, decide the amount of supplemental pay each month.

Second would have been a  requirement that the compensation fund have a minimum reserve of $750,000, up from $500,000. Keeping more money in the fund would leave less money available for judicial pay.

The third change was a requirement that the fund pay for costs associated with administering the program. That change would have cost the fund about $55,000 per year or cost each judge about $10 per month.

Both Hughes and Genovese told the House Judiciary Committee members that no changes are needed.

Genovese said, “I just leave you with the old adage and idiom. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Hughes said, “There are 364 elected judges in this state.” Only one, “ referring to Weimer, “is in favor of this bill.”

Zeringue asked the committee not to vote on his bill, saying he could tell that it was headed for defeat. He said he would revisit the issue next year.

Members of the Committee on House and Governmental Affairs Tuesday voted 8-4 for HB 149 that would raise the base pay for legislators from $16,800 per year to $40,000. Their pay would be adjusted automatically every four years in line with an increase or decrease in median household income.

The bill by Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna, originally contained base pay of $60,000, but it was amended to $40,000. Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, a candidate for governor, proposed the successful amendment. He said $40,000 is 75% of the state’s median household income.

Marino said statewide elected officials, sheriffs, district attorneys, and state employees have all received a pay hike since 1980 when legislators’ base pay was raised to $16,800.

“No one leaving the Legislature is leaving for a lower-paid job than this,” Marino said. He is an attorney and isn’t running for re-election and wouldn’t benefit from a pay increase.

Now, we can talk about those men and women working in lower-level jobs.

Rep. Ed Larvadain, D-Alexandria,  sponsored HB 374 that proposed a state minimum wage of $10 per hour in 2024, which would increase by $2 in 2026 and by another $2 in 2028.

Louisiana businesses currently only have to meet the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage even though many are paying higher minimum wages.

Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said even the proposed increase didn’t go far enough. “We aren’t talking about a livable wage,” he said, adding that the bill is way below a livable wage.

A Baton Rouge resident in a letter to The Advocate said a person in Louisiana who works for $7.25 per hour makes $290 a week for a 40-hour, full-time job, or $15,080 annually. She suggested legislators create a state minimum wage like some of our neighboring states and link legislative pay to that pay scale.

Why do justices and judges, who are already paid well, deserve supplemental pay? Legislators do deserve a pay increase. However, how can they at the same time they are asking for a raise refuse to increase the minimum wage or give teachers a pay increase?

Where’s the justice?