Last-minute change in legislative committee results in retirement boost

Sen. J.P. Morrell, left, Louisiana State Police Colonel Mike Edmonson Show caption
Sen. J.P. Morrell, left, Louisiana State Police Colonel Mike Edmonson

On the final day of the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers signed off on a measure that creates bigger retirement pay for just two people: State Police Col. Mike Edmonson and a lower-ranking state trooper.

The enhancement — valued at $300,000 over a five-year period — was tacked onto legislation that had nothing to do with retirement benefits. By the sponsor’s own admission Tuesday, it was a do-nothing bill that incorporated a minor change to the rules that apply when law enforcement personnel are under investigation.

The behind-closed-doors conference-committee process of working out a compromise on Senate Bill 294 produced the retirement enhancement. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. J.P. Morrell, of New Orleans, told legislators on the last day of session that the change would “take care of a retirement issue for some members of law enforcement.”

On Tuesday, Morrell said he didn’t realize he was boosting Edmonson’s retirement pay. He said he thought he was fixing a retirement problem for a number of law enforcement members — not for two people.

Edmonson, who oversees State Police, said he’s not getting special treatment. He said the change was made because he and a Houma-based master trooper with 32 years of service were the last remnants of a defunct retirement plan. Edmonson and the trooper now will retire in the current State Police retirement system.

“All this does is allow me to get any benefit that any other trooper would get ... that’s my understanding of it,” Edmonson said.

Edmonson said he didn’t ask for the change to state law and doesn’t know who initiated it.

“I’m going to retire at some point. The retirement system I was in doesn’t exist,” Edmonson said.

The practical effect of the legislation is that Edmonson will retire as a full colonel instead of as a captain for bookkeeping purposes. He’s been paying into the retirement system as a colonel for seven years.

The Louisiana State Retirement System’s board members will look at the legislative change Wednesday at their regular meeting.

“We simply wanted them to be aware what is out there, the concerns,” said Irwin L. Felps Jr., the system’s executive director.

The final version of SB294, signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal on June 23, delved into the complicated structure of state government retirement. Edmonson and the other state trooper impacted have worked for State Police long enough to take advantage of the old Deferred Retirement Option Plan.

Under the old rules, a trooper had to make a decision whether to enter DROP when he or she reached 25 years of service or 50 years of age. DROP allowed troopers to continue working even though they were eligible for retirement. The downside was that troopers didn’t get full credit in their pension checks if they started receiving higher salaries after joining DROP.

Edmonson took DROP as a captain.

Through the change made to SB294, Edmonson would receive lifelong pension payments based on the calculation of his higher colonel’s pay of $135,000 a year. That’s more than he would have received at captain’s pay, where it was frozen because of his DROP decision, although it’s unclear just how much of a boost it is. An actuarial note indicates the change will cost the state at least an additional $300,000 over five years for Edmonson and the other trooper.

The provision was added to the legislation during a conference committee that formed June 1 when the House and Senate could not agree on the exact wording of the bill. Three House members and three Senate members worked out a compromise, which on June 2, the final day of session, was approved by both chambers.

That the sponsor of SB294, Morrell, did not fully realize what the change did is the underlying problem with conference committees, the New Orleans Democrat said.

The handful of legislators appointed to work out differences typically do not sit down together for a discussion, he said. Instead, aides act as go-betweens, shuffling paper back and forth.

“The end of session is hectic and chaotic. This instance is illustrative of the main problem of conference committees, because we don’t meet, and everyone contributes separately, random provisos end up in reports. I’m closely following the State Police Retirement System’s upcoming meeting and will work with them to correct any unintended circumstances of a bill that was intended to clarify an issue within the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights,” Morrell said.

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