Legislators back pay raises for local officials

Even as they took notice that state government employees have not had a pay raise in years, legislators cleared the way for the state’s judges, assessors, clerks of court and some sheriffs to get salary increases.

Gov. Bobby Jindal says he’ll sign the pay raise measures that have been sailing through the Louisiana House and state Senate.

Along the way, there’s been opposition from some legislators who point to the cost and who are uncomfortable granting the raises to courthouse officials when state employees haven’t received raises in years. But as many local officials watched from the galleries, the measures have been getting lopsided legislative support.

“Who stands up and battles for those who have gone years without any increase?” said state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, who opposed all the pay raise measures. He added that he knew it wasn’t the best politics bucking officialdom.

Jindal said at week’s end, “We’ll abide by the will of the Legislature. When those bills get to our desk, we’ll sign those bills.”

House Bill 174, which would allow 4 percent pay raises for clerks of court for the next four years, has been approved by both chambers and has been sent to the governor. State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, sponsored HB174.

Both chambers have voted on Senate Bill 63, which would allow local tax assessors to raise their salaries by 4 percent annually for four straight years. The Senate gave final backing in a 22-8 vote Friday and the state Senate President has signed the measure. Once the Speaker of the House signs, SB63 will go to the governor’s desk. State Sen. Fred Mills, R-St. Martinville, sponsored SB63.

Senate Bill 188, sponsored by state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, would provide a structure to raise pay over the next five years for judges from the Louisiana Supreme Court to local jurisdictions. SB188 has been approved by the state Senate and awaits a final vote by the full state House of Representatives.

A sheriffs’ pay increase is tied to the judges pay bill through a state law passed in 2010.

The multiyear pay raise plan covers 372 judges and is estimated to cost $8 million over the five-year period, according to a Legislative Fiscal Office analysis. The same analysis noted that an “indeterminable increase” in local funds would be required for the sheriffs’ raises.

The judges’ pay raise plan mirrors a recommendation of the Judicial Compensation Commission. The state commission monitors how well judges’ salaries are keeping up with inflation, as well as the compensation of their counterparts in other states.

SB188 sponsor Martiny, who chairs the commission, pushed the legislation, saying raises are warranted and necessary to preserve the quality of those serving on the bench. Louisiana judges’ pay has not kept up.

While advancing the pay raise measure, the House did not appropriate any additional funds to pay for them in the operational budget for the new fiscal year.

A Senate committee on Friday added $2.5 million to the judicial expense bill. The Legislative Fiscal Office estimated first-year pay raise costs would be $2.469 million.

The plan would, this year, increase Supreme Court justices’ pay by 5.5 percent, appeals court judges’ by 3.7 percent and general trial court judges’ by 4 percent. That would make Supreme Court justices’ pay $159,047; appellate, $149,023; and general trial court, $143,215.

After that, judges’ pay would increase 2.1 percent a year through 2017.

The state Senate wanted to restrict the raises to judges and banned salary increases for other public officials, such as sheriffs, whose compensation is tied to judges’ salaries. But the version pending House approval would extend salary increases to those other officials.

Sheriffs could receive the same 4 percent raise as granted district court judges, if they complete training requirements. Forty-two sheriffs have completed the training, according to the Louisiana Sheriffs Association.

Legislators pushed the assessors and clerks of court measures, noting that the officials have not received pay increases in the past seven years. Today, clerk of court pay ranges from $88,000 to $108,000, and assessor pay from $88,290 to $108,290 depending on the population of the parish.

Assessors and clerks of court would be allowed to raise their salaries 4 percent a year through 2016-17 under other measures. Any raises would be paid for out of local funds.

“This bill is permissive. It’s not required. They do so at their own peril at election time,” said Arnold, who sponsored HB174 and handled SB63 on the House floor.

State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, said the pay raises amount to an unfunded mandate. Champagne also noted that the assessors’ pay hike also would increase personal expense allowances and extra funding they receive for completing educational and experience requirements because those are calculated on base pay.