Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford
House Bill 189 by Rep. Dee Richard, who has no party affiliation, is a proposal that was first floated last year, passed by both chambers of the Legislature and then later axed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. It would allow state retirees with at least 10 years of service who have reached the age of 50 to retire early.
Richard said the program will save the state money because the position left vacant “must be abolished; and may only be filled or reestablished under severely restricted circumstances,” according to the legislation. That’s the section that gave Jindal heartburn in 2009.
So when Richard returned to the House Retirement Committee with his bill Thursday, he offered up an amendment from the administration that makes the section permissive, meaning it would be up to agency heads to delete the open position or fill it with another state employee. The bill had been put on hold for weeks as the administration worked toward this compromise, Richard said.
“In my mind, it halfway guts the bill,” he told the committee, “but it’s still serves a purpose for the people who want to retire early.”
Rep. Joel Robideaux of Lafayette, the speaker pro tem of the House, apologized for the hold-up. “I think the administration came up with the amendments to prevent the veto from happening this time,” said Robideaux, who also has no party affiliation.
With that, the committee unanimously approved the changes.
The tide, however, started to turn with a curious line of questioning from Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans. “I hope you had a witness and two notaries in the room when you cut that deal for those amendments,” he said to Richard.
“I was nowhere around,” Richard responded with a laugh.
LaFonta continued, “Because those people on the fourth floor speak with a forked tongue. I’ve seen a lot of people come through here saying they had the support and then they shoot you down in the field.”
Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, was the first lawmaker to point out that the amendment created a situation where you could end up having two people in the system, whereas under the original bill there was only one. “There’s no cost savings on this anymore. We need to change it back,” Cortez said. “We need to be fiscally responsible.”
Richard, again laughing, said, “I won’t object to that.”
“I think we all liked it better that way,” Rep. J. Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell, chairman of the committee, said of the original bill.
“Me too,” Richard said.
To that, the committee erupted in clapping and even more laughter. “You can’t beat them sometimes,” Richard added.
When committee members voted again to keep the amendments intact, only Rep. Frank Hoffman, R-West Monroe, who carried the changes for the administration, voted in favor. Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, jokingly asked to skip the vote, but ultimately voted to reject the same amendments he had just minutes earlier voted to approve, joining the rest of the committee. HB 189 now heads to the floor for further debate — in its original form.
The decision to buck the administration runs much deeper than a few jokes, though. Many lawmakers started the session second guessing Jindal’s proposed cuts to the state’s workforce. With a $3 billion budget shortfall looming over the next two fiscal years, lawmakers, including several chairmen, wanted to cut more positions, and Richard’s bill creates a vehicle for that.
The hearing also revealed how some lawmakers view working with the administration and specifically Jindal. The Legislature appears hesitant to take anything from the mouth of Jindal at even face value after the governor backed down on substantive ethics reform, reversed course on a pay raise for legislators, supported taxes disguised as fees and used one-time monies to partially fix some budget woes.
It further shows that the Legislature continues to yearn for independence. It’s just too bad that the governor is going to crush those dreams with his veto pen as soon as the bill reaches his desk. Of course, lawmakers could always strike a deal among themselves now to challenge the veto should it come, but that would be an unprecedented move.
Hey, that’s politics, Richard told the retirement committee last week. More to the point, it’s legislative politics, where a deal is a deal until its broken to pieces. “I’m just trying to play the game,” he said with a chuckle.
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