As a result of his odd dealings with HB 479, the pertinence of the question increases even more: what office will term-limited Speaker Jim Tucker wish to contest this fall?
Last week, Tucker informed by memo the bill’s author, state Rep. Kirk Talbot, that the bill, scheduled to head to the House floor, would require a two-thirds vote for passage. This bill increases by three percent most state employees’ minimum contribution to their retirement plans, whether defined contribution or benefit. Tucker, relying on the House legal staff whose employment he oversees, argued that their characteristics made them either a “fee” or “tax,” which have constitutional requirements subjecting any increase of which to a two-thirds affirmative vote.
Talbot yanked the bill while another memo came across, this time to Tucker from the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration which demolished the legal reasoning that Tucker had produced by his request (which did not even argue properly the seminal case involved from 1983, Auburn Insurance Co. v. Bernard).
In particular, it addressed the absurdity behind an offer Tucker made to Talbot, that it would not be a “tax” or “fee” if the money was specified directly in the bill to go to the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System because otherwise it came out of the “general fund.”
After a dozen years in the House, is Tucker that much of a blithering idiot not to know that “general fund” dollars have poured into supporting state retirement systems for more than two decades (last year being $690 million)? The state constitutionally is obligated to have no unfunded accrued liability in its retirement programs in 18 years and within a few years is estimated to have to spend over a billion dollars a years of state revenues above and beyond its contractual obligation (generally a close match to the employee contribution) not just to meet this stricture but also to keep the system from going bankrupt before then. To accomplish this, either state employees pay more, or taxpayers pay more, but the property right employees have in it remains the same regardless of who it comes from or whether it goes directly to LASERS or it goes into the general fund first.
But, as presiding officer over the House, regardless of Tucker’s shoddy reasoning on this, if asked on a point of order in bill debate about what vote threshold would be needed to pass the measure, he could rule two-thirds. However, at that point he could be challenged and overturned on a simple majority vote – the same majority ordinarily needed to pass. Thus, if a majority does favor the bill, it also can use that same voting power to overturn the ruling. Whether Tucker makes this bluff or silently retreats remains to be seen.
For it’s the second time in the past two months that Tucker has come up with something truly off the wall that has gotten publicity. During the special session for reapportionment, at one point Tucker asserted some Senate districts were drawn illegally and he couldn’t let the House go forward with the plan. His Senate counterpart Pres. Joel Chaisson called Tucker essentially a liar and the matter quietly evaporated over that weekend with Tucker doing nothing subsequently to stop that bill.
In that previous incident, speculation arose that Tucker sought to have a redraw – which would have been very difficult given the geographies and people involved – of the map to give him a shot at a favorable Senate district. His concern for his political future also may drive this equally as perplexing move on his part.
This tactic on his part may reflect the double desire of trying to repair his image to state employees and continuing to appear to be (even if recent efforts have relied on symbolism more than substance) a “fiscal conservative.” It’s bad enough that, as House speaker, he’s been seen as the point man for downsizing government and in the burnishing of his credentials as conservative fiscally becoming known as the leader in a policymaking position most eager to slash state spending. But, worse in the eyes of likely many state employees, in the past he undertook the sensible path (eventually abandoned) to scale back the state’s overabundant deferred compensation system through creating a defined contribution benefit system for future hires, yet, worst of all to many, wanted to give the part-timers in the Legislature undeserved full-time salaries.
So by holding himself out as trying to ensure the integrity of the system, he can pose both as a fiscal conservative and appear to tell state employees if they have to contribute more of their salaries up front, at least it’ll be “safer” by shunting it in this “direct” fashion to fund their retirement benefits. This reasoning crumbles when knowing the facts of the situation, but how many state employees other than me will take the time to learn about it and think it through clearly? Tucker may hope this latest exercise shores up hard feelings against him among state employees without risking his unevenly-deserved reputation as a fiscal hawk.
All this could assist him in any future campaign for office since he must leave his current seat at the beginning of next year. As perhaps the most political animal in state government, it seems uncharacteristic of him to want to sit out this election cycle. And while his political machinations rooted so deeply can make them difficult to trace back to his genuine motivations for them, setting himself up for something, anything, in the fall appears as rational an explanation as anything for what seems to be an irrational course.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 14:20