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Flawed arguments show LA legislators still don't get it

By remarks made after Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed a doubling of Louisiana legislators’ salaries to full-time pay, at least a pair of state lawmakers shows they still don’t get it, lending clues as to why legislators as a whole were so incredibly myopic on this issue.

Facing constituents, House Speaker Jim Tucker, widely viewed as the driving force behind the effort to boost annual pay for a position defined in the Constitution as part-time to a level higher than the annual median family income in the state, and state Rep. Jeff Arnold defended their actions to vote for it through a mishmash of curious if suspect supportive arguments, sob stories, and actual dissembling.

Tucker argued that such a large raise was needed because the Legislature needs people from all walks of life. He cited a story about how educators, attorneys, professionals, and those in medicine turned him down as he solicited candidates for last year legislative races, allegedly proving higher pay as needed.

All such a statement shows is Tucker doesn’t know who is in the very body he runs, is rather dismissive of them, and can’t even think about the issue logically. I count 26 attorneys in the House, as well as two in the medical field (pharmacy), two educators (and four more who are retired from that profession), and several people in what are considered professional fields. So it would seem that enough people from these walks of life are throwing themselves out there even as others decline; where’s the problem?

Tucker empirically could have had a better case if he had had noted that among the 26 attorneys, three agricultural operators, 24 business owners, two educators, eight managers, three executives, nine in the financial industry, two pharmacists, six in sales, five self-employed, and 11 retirees that you didn’t see a lot in the way of clerks, construction workers, unemployed, welfare recipients, etc. who make up a vastly larger cross-section of the population than those from occupations listed by House members. Naturally, he couldn’t, because he knows (or maybe if he doesn’t he should) that defeats his very argument.

If one argues that to attract a cross-section of the public requires the offering of a full-time salary, you must argue that if you get them to run and elected because of the salary, they no longer are representative of some segment of the population because their natures have been changed. They cease being clerks, construction workers, unemployed, welfare recipients, etc. because now they have been changed into full-time legislators. That is, you will have greater, more thorough representation of the public by part-time legislators, most of who must hold down regular jobs, because they have these very jobs despite the predominance of upper-class occupations they represent, than in creating a new class of professional legislators.

Perhaps another uncomfortable fact Tucker doesn’t want known which destroys his argument is that the $16,800 (which, when other income that a typical legislator can draw is added in about doubles on an annual basis) current base salary already attracts full-time legislators in the House. Two, state Reps. Kay Katz and Karen St. Germain, list their occupations as “legislator.” Another, state Rep. Bodi White, doesn’t list one so we may assume the same of him. So why boost the salary when it’s already good enough for some as a sole occupation?

There’s yet another flaw in Tucker’s argument that full-time salaries will attract a more diverse cross-section of society to legislative service: the same willingness for many to run for the job at the current salary level allows them to campaign for the job to get there in the first place. Tucker essentially assumes that the full-time salary means people can “afford” to quit another job to serve as a legislator. But he neglects to add that running for a legislative seat is itself a full-time job requiring at the least several months of campaigning. Even if they can afford to quit after taking the position, these people thinking after election they could quit their jobs could not afford to quit months prior to campaign not even knowing they’ll get the job. In fact, this raise would have given the Legislature an even more upper-class “bias,” because with the higher salary as an incentive campaigners will spend even more money and time to win the increased reward, pricing out even more thoroughly the segment of the population that cannot make the sacrifices easily to run.

(This point another New Orleans-area legislator, state Sen. Ann Duplessis, needs to understand. Incredibly, she argued the veto of the raise hurt the state. Let’s see, having it go through would cost more money, would discriminate even more heavily against candidates who must make income and time sacrifices to run because the offices would be more energetically sought, and would create a class of legislators even more detached from the public. How is any of this beneficial in any way?)

In a way, Tucker’s argument insults his colleagues. Paralleling the same flawed argument as with raising teacher pay, essentially he’s accusing present legislators of being lacking in some way that higher pay magically would cure. After all, if higher pay attracts “better” legislators in some ways, then does he not imply this present lower pay level in some fashion leaves us with a chamber full of “worse” legislators?

At least Tucker didn’t stoop to the whining of Arnold, who asserted the demands of his legislative service cost him a recent job. Oh, this is a tough one: if Arnold wasn’t so enamored with the power and privilege that comes with being a member of the House and his job was so important to him, he would have resigned his seat and kept his job. Nobody forced him to run for office and nobody put a gun to his head to keep him in it and, frankly, with that attitude there probably are more competent people in his district that ought to hold his job.

But Tucker did flat out lie about one thing and then falsely tried to de-legitimize arguments against the raise. His claim that the raise would not increase legislators’ retirement incomes blatantly disregards the fact that for 17 of them it would have. Further, he insinuated that misinformation as a whole served to unfairly mischaracterize the argument for the raise, saying information “through the blogs and through the radio, was so wrong in so many instances that it was hard to even begin to come back with the facts.”

I don’t hear every talk show and I don’t read every blog so I don’t know whether there’s truth to what he says. But here are the facts, as I have presented before in this space, about the present and current salary levels (including base pay and per diem) among southern states:

  • Currently, Louisiana trails only Florida in pay; obviously the new level would have put typical Louisiana legislator pay at over $11,000 more a year that Florida’s.
  • In pay per capita, Louisiana currently ranks third trailing only the two states with lower populations Arkansas and Mississippi; the new level would have far exceeded any of these states and be almost 40 percent higher than Arkansas’.
  • Louisiana now also trails only Florida in pay percent of per capita income where Florida lawmakers make 107 percent of the average resident’s income and Louisiana is at 93 percent, with the vetoed increase putting Louisiana’s legislators’ pay at a whopping 160 percent of per capita income.
  • The idea of the necessity of a raise is beyond absurd when one considers the return on investment for the current level: one look at hyper-critic C.B. Forgotston’s “Misery Index” with the vast majority of its good categories having Louisiana in the bottom ten states and of its bad categories having the state in the top ten also tells it all – there’s little bang for the buck from the Legislature currently, so why throw good money after bad, especially when peer states for less money are doing far better?

    What’s most derelict about Tucker’s defense is that he seems too dull to get it through his head that the vast public outcry against the raise came not because of distortion of his argument, but because it was an illogical, weak argument to begin with that so many saw through so easily. And in the final analysis, that’s why he and so many other legislators seemed stunned at the overwhelming negative reaction to it: they create such a cocoon for themselves in the artificial environment comprising of the Capitol complex and a few watering holes in Baton Rouge that they suspend critical faculties in relating their atypical existences to the larger, outside world.

    A cocoon, that is, that would be reinforced by making the job full-time. Which in the end was perhaps the single greatest reason why the raise was truly such a bad idea.

    Anonymous said...

    Jeff it is obvious that you were not at the meeting in which I mentioned losing my job. I was not "whining", I was stating a fact of what legislators are facing with being is session 4 ½ of the last 6 months. I was able to secure another job and at no point was I "whining". We do not call special sessions, the Gov. does and I can not find in history where the legislature called itself into session. A constituent who knows my position with my former employer asked me to bring up what I went through during session with that job. Like Gov. Jindal, I plan to keep the promises I make to my constituents and serve them as I have done for the past 6 years and through 3 elections.

    Next time get your facts straight before criticizing something I say. If you rely on the Times Picayune for your source then that is your problem right there. I am in the phone book if you ever need to get a direct quote!

    Jeffery J. Arnold
    State Representative, District 102
    State of Louisiana
    Algiers, LA 70131

    Anonymous said...

    Will you explain "one" thing to me and the other voters....Rep. Arnold, "Exactly why in the Hell did you run for the seat that you now hold?" Maybe, could it be just for the opportunity for public service...hmmmm?