Louisiana Spotlight: Last-minute pension law change skirts transparency

These are the kind of backroom deals that make people angry and distrustful of government.

In the final hours of the legislative session, state lawmakers crafted a pension law change that gives the State Police superintendent and one other trooper a sizable retirement boost, with no public debate of the implications or the cost.

The price tag is estimated to be $300,000.

The deal was struck in a six-person legislative committee behind closed doors, with the bill’s sponsor saying he had no understanding what the law change would do and no one directly taking ownership of the proposal.

“Either somebody’s not being candid or somebody didn’t read this bill. That much is clear,” said state Treasurer John Kennedy, who has raised concerns about the legislation.

The superintendent, Col. Mike Edmonson, says the change in the way his retirement benefits will be calculated was about fairness.

However, that argument was never given a public vetting because the merits of the law change didn’t go through the traditional hearing process for legislation. Instead, it was tacked into a bill dealing with a different subject and rushed through the House and Senate as they were getting ready to go home.

“I do agree that the timing, the way it comes out at the end like that, it looks like it’s something that shouldn’t have happened,” Edmonson said. “It was fair. It’s just unfortunate that it came out in the last point of the session like that.”

The board for the Louisiana State Police Retirement System is investigating whether the retirement boost was properly passed by lawmakers and its implications. Kennedy, a board member, said the agencies that set state credit ratings raised concerns about special carve-outs that can raise the state’s multibillion-dollar retirement debt.

Edmonson, an appointee of Gov. Bobby Jindal, said he didn’t personally ask for the change but said his staff sought it with his blessing. He said if the retirement system says the pension increase was done improperly or was unfair, he won’t take it.

The retirement language, added into a bill by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, will put Edmonson and a 32-year trooper based in Houma in line with how benefits are calculated for other current State Police employees. Edmonson said he and the trooper were the final people impacted by a now-obsolete retirement plan.

Morrell said he doesn’t know who sought the add-on to his bill, which initially dealt with the rights of law enforcement officers under investigation. He said he was told by legislative staff that the new language was an innocuous retirement fix for law enforcement officers.

But he acknowledges he didn’t follow up.

“When someone’s hitchhiking on your bill at the last minute of session and the hitchhiker was seemingly innocuous, it was my responsibility to make sure it was innocuous and I didn’t do that,” Morrell said.

The law change will let Edmonson retire as a full colonel instead of as a captain, so his pension payment will be calculated off the higher $134,000-per-year salary. He said he’s been paying into the retirement system as a colonel for seven years even though he wasn’t eligible for the higher benefit.

“This wasn’t some grand conspiracy. It just wasn’t,” Edmonson said.

Lawmakers also passed a $53 million fee hike on uninsured motorists in the waning hours of the legislative session to boost the salaries of State Police troopers.

Same closed-door process, same lack of transparency.

That measure contains a long list of fee increases for drivers caught without insurance or who can’t prove they have it when stopped in their vehicle.

Supporters say the bill makes it more expensive for drivers to not have insurance than to get a basic liability policy. Critics say it will hit people who already can’t afford Louisiana’s high car insurance costs.

The policy debate might have been a worthy one to have, but instead, the law was written behind closed doors, giving little reassurance to a public already skeptical about how government business is conducted.

Kennedy warned: “The last day of the legislative session is always dangerous.”

Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.