In writing this column each week, I try to find ways to look on the bright side, rather than compiling an ongoing list of reasons why Louisiana can’t have nice things.
But for every positive move, such as expanding Medicaid (yay!), it seems those in power give us faceplants. So, for today’s edition, I’m focusing on one thing we can’t have: a better, more representative Legislature.
That today's lawmakers make the same salary they’ve made since 1980 is absurd on its face. It’s also deeply problematic, because the prospect of earning $16,800 a year for what’s billed as a part-time job (spoiler alert: it isn't) — with additional payments to cover expenses bringing the total to around $30,000 — is enough to sideline many good people who otherwise would serve honorably.
And here's the rub: Those who opt in, and out, are not distributed randomly.
If you’re a successful business owner with support staff, a retiree, independent wealthy, or a professional with partners who see the advantages of having a powerful legislator on the letterhead, chances are you can make it work.
But if you go to a job every day where you’re needed in person, you can’t just disappear for several months every spring — and on many other occasions throughout the year for key hearings or public meetings. What employer would want that?
What if you’re also someone who carries the disproportionate share of family-care duties? Could the low pay be one reason why only a paltry 18% of lawmakers in Baton Rouge are women?
The reality of who can and cannot reasonably afford to run for the job has given us a lopsided Legislature whose membership skews heavily in favor of business interests — sometimes interests in which lawmakers have personal stakes — at the expense of regular Louisianans. One example among many: insurance brokers pushing industry-friendly bills.
Whose fault is this sorry condition? This year, the blame lies squarely on legislators themselves.
Faced with a proposal by Rep. Joe Marino, I-Gretna, to raise the pay for future legislatures to a modest $60,000 — enough to get by, with or without a real part-time job — lawmakers panicked. One committee watered Marino’s bill down; last week, another killed it.
House Bill 149 didn't die because it lacked merit. In fact, many lawmakers, like Marino, openly acknowledge that the current pay structure is a disincentive.
Rep. Daryl Deshotel, R-Marskville, said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing last week that “this salary prohibits a true representation of all the people in our state…The optics overshadow what is smart and what we should be doing.”
Rep. John Illg, R-Metairie, described attempting to recruit candidates, only to have the conversation break down once the pay came up.
One lawmaker who justified the status quo was state Rep. Debbie Villio, who admitted taking a financial hit but said she “ran for the reasons of service.”
That's fine, but there’s nothing dishonorable about expecting a fair day’s pay for a fair day's work. And last I checked, “service” isn’t accepted currency by mortgage companies, insurers or grocery stores.
The transparent truth here is that lawmakers got spooked by politics; they feared that in this election season they’d be accused of feathering their own nests, even though any opponent who made that accusation would also qualify for the higher salary.
They probably winced at the memory of the last attempted pay raise in 2008, when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal indicated support, then vetoed the bill amid a swirl of talk radio criticism — a failure of word and will on Jindal’s part. And who knows, maybe some of them like it that good candidates aren't able to challenge them.
Some criticized Marino's bill because teachers also deserve a pay raise. That's a subject of heated debate despite a gusher of revenue, but these are separate issues. Although perhaps if more lawmakers had to subsist entirely on a salary that doesn’t cover their bills, they’d be more willing to pony up — just like having more members who have been or could become pregnant might change the trajectory of bills to clarify how doctors can legally treat difficult pregnancies and miscarriages in light of the state’s abortion ban.
There's no guarantee that a more diverse Legislature would vote differently on abortion or a wide spectrum of topics, but it would at least allow more Louisianans to have their priorities represented.
The current structure is a systemic shortcoming that shows itself nearly every day.
And it will only be fixed when lawmakers muster the courage to address the obvious: We get what we pay for.