Friday, August 1, 2014

Snakes everywhere

Posted By on Fri, Aug 1, 2014 at 11:21 AM

That hissing sound you’ve been hearing lately is the sound of a snake slithering through the halls of officialdom in Baton Rouge. This particular snake is Senate Bill 294, which lawmakers passed on June 2, the final day of the legislative session. Gov. Bobby Jindal signed it into law on June 23, making it Act 859.

As initially presented, SB 294 purportedly dealt with the “rights of law enforcement officers while under investigation,” which sounded innocuous enough — but that was never its true aim. The plan all along was for different versions of the measure to be passed by the House and Senate, forcing it to go to a conference committee, which could rewrite it wholesale and sneak (or snake) the real version through at the last minute.

Which is what happened.

When the bill emerged from conference committee with just hours remaining in the session, it contained a brand-new amendment totally unrelated to law enforcement officers under investigation. The amendment changed the rules governing the Louisiana State Police Retirement System (LSPRS) — for just one or two members of the system.

Specifically, the amendment significantly enhanced the retirement benefits of State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, who is routinely at the side of Gov. Jindal. According to at least one knowledgeable estimate, Col. Edmonson’s annual retirement pay would increase by $55,000 a year — from $79,000 to $134,000 — which would cost taxpayers more than $1.6 million over 30 years.

None of that was discussed in public, however. Nor was the change advertised in advance, as required of legislation dealing with public employee retirement benefits. Instead, the amended measure was routinely presented as a compromise and summarily adopted by trusting lawmakers in the session’s final hours. That’s how snakes slither through the process.

Then the fertilizer hit the oscillator.

Capitol newsman and blogger Tom Aswell (louisianavoice.com) exposed the Edmonson amendment and its potential cost to taxpayers (and to the retirement system) on July 11. A few days later, fellow blogger C.B. Forgotston (forgotston.com) echoed Aswell’s line of inquiry — and the fact that no one on the six-member conference committee seemed to recall who authored the amendment. Between them, Aswell and Forgotston raised enough hell that state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, finally fessed up that he was the father of what Forgotston dubbed “the bastard amendment.”

By then, the bloggers’ rants had gone viral and the controversy over the amendment became a statewide story. An obviously chastened Edmonson claimed he knew nothing about the ruse (or at least, that he had nothing to do with it) and promised he would not accept the higher pension if it were unconstitutional.

That sounded high-minded of Edmonson, but it's a hollow gesture. For starters, it’s not clear that a public employee can reject a portion of his or her pension. Second, federal law makes it illegal to take away pension rights once they are “vested,” and Edmonson’s pension is fully vested. He has been with the State Police well over 30 years.

What’s needed is for someone to challenge the legality of Act 859. State Treasurer John Kennedy, who sits on the LSPRS board, has formally asked the Legislature and the board to investigate the Edmonson amendment’s impact and other embarrassing aspects of the charade. The board is dragging its feet, but Kennedy is not letting up. Neither are Aswell and Forgotston.

Meanwhile, Jindal should not get a pass for his role in this farce. Riser is a key Jindal ally, and Edmonson is clearly one of Jindal’s darlings. Rumor has it Edmonson may run for lieutenant governor. After this scandal, he’ll be lucky just to retire.

Unless someone challenges Act 859, however, Edmonson could change his mind about declining the higher pension. Technically, the money to boost his retirement pay comes from a fund that is designed to give retired troopers and the survivors of slain troopers (widows and orphans, literally) cost-of-living raises. That makes the amendment even more pernicious.

The obvious party to challenge Act 859 is the LSPRS board. But, given that most of the board’s members are Jindal appointees, that’s a long shot. The snakes are everywhere.

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