Pay Raise Hell

What started out as a ridiculous bill destined to gain little traction — New Orleans Democratic Sen. Ann Duplessis’ proposed legislation giving elected officials a 200 percent pay raise — passed the Senate last Tuesday, and that’s when all hell broke loose.

Just on the face of it, the original bill defied belief. A modest pay raise for legislators is one thing, but tripling base salaries from $16,800 annually to $50,700 annually flies in the face of any form of common sense. And the timing is truly galling. Gas prices are now $4 a gallon and rising, food prices are skyrocketing, and the cost of health insurance continues to be a heavy burden for most Louisiana families. Yet a large contingent of politicos thinks this is a perfect time to give themselves a massive pay raise. To its credit, most of the entire Acadiana delegation voted against the bill, with the exceptions of Republican state Sen. Mike Michot and Democratic state Sen. Eric LaFleur, who both voted in favor of the raise.

Michot and LaFleur had plenty of company, and the political wrangling driving the bill made voters’ blood boil. If you weren’t keeping score, Republican Speaker of the House Jim Tucker spearheaded the charge for the pay raises, and the unspoken message was that if Gov. Jindal vetoes the legislative pay raise, then the rest of the legislation that Jindal’s pushing — including his controversial school vouchers bill — will die on the vine in the Legislature.

And Jindal, the wunderkind who pledged to restore fiscal conservatism to Louisiana, seems just fine playing ball with Tucker. Jindal issued a statement through his press secretary that he “strongly disagrees with the pay increase,” and also told The Associated Press that he — get ready for this — won’t veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

That was the backdrop to last Friday’s vote in the House, where despite pressing the flesh all morning and trying to cut deals, it became clear that Tucker didn’t have enough votes to pass the bill. That led to an amended bill that still feels like a callous money grab; legislator pay raise version 2.0 still doubles lawmakers’ salaries. And on Monday, the Senate passed the bill, leaving Gov. Jindal as the last defense to veto a bill that’s sparked widespread outrage among voters.

Barring a last-minute change of heart, Jindal inexplicably still says he won’t veto the bill. His rationale? “I will keep my pledge to let them govern themselves and make their own decisions as a separate branch of government,” he said in a statement. “I will not let anything, even this clearly excessive pay raise, stop us from moving Louisiana forward with a clear plan for reform.”

If Jindal doesn’t veto it, he looks like a spineless figurehead who’s content to sit by idly on the sidelines and give up one of his core campaign promises. Just last Sunday, Jindal appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation, and between more coy non-denial denials about his chances of being U.S. Sen. John McCain’s running mate, our governor outlined the main reasons he believes the Republican Party has lost its way. To reclaim its majority status, Jindal said the GOP needed to look back to the stands it took in the 1990s.

“The reason was the party stood against wasteful spending, against corruption,” Jindal told Face the Nation. “It was a party of ideas like welfare reform, stood for conservative principles. The problem was the party went to Washington to change Washington, and instead became captured by Washington; all of a sudden [the GOP] started defending the bridge to nowhere: earmarks, wasteful spending, things they would have rightfully condemned if the other party had proposed it. ... I think the way we start winning elections again is by being conservative, by sticking to our principles and not condoning.”

You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to see that Jindal sings an entirely different tune depending on whether he’s talking to the national media or Louisiana media.

Right now, Jindal and the legislators who voted for the pay raise all look foolish. The Legislature’s giving Jindal a bit of payback for the heavy-handed tactics his administration’s used with lawmakers since taking office, but they couldn’t have picked a dumber issue to make their point. And if Jindal can’t see the wisdom of standing up to the Legislature this early in his tenure — especially on an issue that the public is clearly outraged over —  it’s going to be a loooong, unproductive slog through the rest of our young governor’s tenure.