Jim Beam column:Memories from 1980 pay raise

Published 6:48 am Wednesday, May 10, 2023

A bill that would increase the salaries of Louisiana legislators has cleared its first hurdle, but there are more obstacles to go. Raising lawmakers salaries is always controversial and interesting at the same time, as it was in 1980, the last time lawmakers got a raise.

We will get back to that, but for now Rep. Joe Marino, an independent from Gretna, is sponsoring this year’s pay increase legislation. He proposed a $60,000 annual increase but a House committee lowered that to $39,065, which is 75% of the current median household income in Louisiana.

The bill was approved 8-4 by the Committee on House and Governmental Affairs and recommitted to the House Appropriations Committee. If approved there, it goes to the full Senate and then to the House.

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Legislators currently receive an annual salary of $16,800, which is $1,400 per month, that was approved in 1980. They also receive unvouchered expenses totaling $6,000 that has to be reported as income that was approved in 1997.

When they are in session, legislators receive $161 per day in per diem, which is an allowance for lodging, meals, and incidental expenses. In 2022, they received $14,280 in per diem for their regular session. They also get per diem for special sessions and meetings between sessions.

Before legislative salaries were increased 43 years ago to $16,800, lawmakers were paid $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year. Per diem at that time was increased from $50 to $75 per day.

The late-Sen. B.B. “Sixty” Rayburn, who went to the Legislature for the first time in 1948, had some interesting things to say about the $25 boost in per diem.

“When I first came here, we got $10 a day in expenses and you could get a room for $2 a day at the old King Hotel,”  Rayburn said. “Now it’s something like $24 to $30 for a room. And if you don’t believe me, you ought to go out and try to get one.”

Rayburn said the daily expense allowance had been $50 since 1956 and there hadn’t been an increase in legislators’ monthly salary in four years.

“I’ve been through this in the past,” Rayburn said of the legislative pay increase. “I’ve voted for every judge, every assessor, every sheriff, and every public employee who has come up for a raise. I just think if we’re going to do the job, we’re entitled to a little more money.”

Many legislators since that time can also say they have voted for more public official pay raises than they can count. Pay increases are pretty much an annual affair.

In 1980, the House approved the $16,800 salary by a vote of 64-33. The Senate vote was 20-19, the exact majority needed.

The Associated Press said, “When final passage was called for, it first appeared that the bill would pass easily (in the Senate), but then a number of senators — mostly freshmen — switched their votes from green “yes” to red “no.”

Sen. Elwyn Nicholson of Marrero grabbed the microphone and said, “Don’t think I didn’t see all those nay votes when you knew you could get away with it.”

Those who opposed the 1980 pay increase said some things awfully similar to what opponents of the current proposed raise have said.

Sen. Bill Keith, a freshman senator from Shreveport, unsuccessfully tried to make the higher 1980 salary effective in 1984 when a new Legislature took office.

“We knew what the salary was when we were elected to this office,” Keith said. “There is something discomforting about this body raising its own salary.”

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, opposes the current proposed increase, according to The Illuminator.

“Service is about sacrifice. We know that when we run.”

Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, said, “We all knew what the compensation would be when we ran for office. If any of us is doing this for money, it’s not for the pure at heart.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards at the Baton Rouge Press Club over a week ago said, “At some point, somebody’s got to do something. But it also has to be reasonable. If they raise their own pay and don’t do it for teachers and don’t do minimum wage, that becomes sort of a problem.”

A House committee has already killed the minimum wage proposal and the full House has sent a state budget to the Senate that doesn’t include the $2,000 teacher raise Edwards had proposed.

The Senate may decide to do things differently, but if they don’t, a pay raise for state legislators is going to be a hard sell. Whatever happens, the rest of this current legislative session could become a barn burner.