Last Modified: Friday, June 01, 2012 7:03 PM
Legislators have to wrap up their regular session this weekend, and a number of items are still up in the air. However, it’s amazing how many loose ends will be tied up by final adjournment at 6 p.m. Monday.
Meanwhile, a few observations from the session are in order.
Gov. Bobby Jindal got his education reform program enacted early in the session, and that was a smart move on his part. The longer it takes to make major changes, the more time it gives opponents to marshal their troops.
The education changes included approval of an expanded school voucher program that gives students more school choices, revision of the teacher tenure law and easier approval of new charter schools. Each was controversial, but Jindal prevailed. However, the whole thing came close to collapse on Friday when House members objected to the Minimum Foundation Program that funds public education in Louisiana.
The Senate sent the $3.4 billion MFP resolution to the House with a 26-10 vote. The hang-up in the House was the fact the MFP for the first time in history provides state funds for some students to attend private and parochial schools. They would be able to use those vouchers that Jindal prefers to call Student Scholarships for Education Excellence. And every dollar they need will come from existing public school systems.
Debate was hot and heavy and you could see the frustration on the face of Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who steered the reform program through the House. After an emotional appeal to his colleagues, the MFP was approved 53-49, the exact number of yes votes it needed for final approval.
If the MFP had been rejected, it would have had to go back to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that drew it up. BESE wouldn’t have had enough time to come up with a revised formula before adjournment and that meant last year’s MFP would be in place. It doesn’t have the voucher provision, and that would have stymied the scholarship program.
Seven of the nine representatives from Southwest Louisiana voted against approving the formula. Most had earlier opposed the education reforms for fear of jeopardizing what they consider the excellent school systems they represent.
On another major issue, the governor’s overhaul of the state’s debt-ridden retirement system has struggled throughout the session. The first major change to be approved came only last week. It creates a cash balance retirement system for new employees that is similar to a 401(k). Only two of the four major state retirement systems are targeted in the new plan. Other retirement measures were awaiting House action on Friday.
Despite the uncertainty of the other measures, the extremely efficient Jindal public relations machinery went into high gear with passage of the cash balance plan. And that is a unique feature of this governor’s method of operation. Give the administration a hard time, and it is quick to respond and challenge opponents. When it wins one, the success story gets glowing praise.
“Historic pension reform” was the subject of an administration e-mail sent out after the cash balance vote. The governor’s deputy communications director called it a “game-changer for the state” and added, “There has not been a more significant reform to Louisiana’s pension system in decades.”
The e-mail also quoted the Associated Press that said, “With passage, Louisiana is set to become the first state in the nation to provide only the ‘cash balance’ retirement plan for state employees.”
What the e-mail left out of the AP report was the following sentence that said, “Nebraska has such a plan — but also includes its employees in the federal Social Security system. Louisiana state employees aren’t in Social Security.”
Critics of the Louisiana legislation said state employees are going to have a difficult time living off their cash balance account without something like Social Security to give them some earnings backup in their retirement years. Trying to live off only the cash balance plan in their retirement years isn’t going to be easy for state workers. Their average annual pension under a better plan they enjoy now is only $22,000.
The state is going to save money, of course, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s a shame the state didn’t live up to its obligations much earlier by properly funding retirement systems during the boom years.
The Jindal forces pulled some slick legislative maneuvers during the session. They rewrote retirement bills at the last minute, attached a significant 48-page retirement bill onto a 3-page non-controversial measure to bypass a Senate committee hearing and combined two capital construction bills at the last minute. The last one put House members on the spot. If they objected to the rewritten bill, they would lose construction projects in their areas.
It’s all fair and square, according to the rules, but something about it seems rather distasteful. However, when winning at all costs is your goal, you do what you have to do. And members of the Jindal administration have made it clear they have no reservations and make no excuses for their actions.