One committee member after another laughingly admitted to suffering from buyer's remorse last week after approving amendments that came from the fourth floor of the State Capitol, where the governor's offices are located. It was a comedic twist for a bill that will, in all likelihood, be vetoed, if recent history is any indication. It's also a lesson in legislative politics.
House Bill 189 by Rep. Dee Richard of Thibodaux, who has no party affiliation, is a proposal that was first floated last year, passed by both chambers of the Legislature and then axed by Gov. Bobby Jindal. It would allow state employees with at least 10 years of service who have reached the age of 50 to retire early. Richard said the program will save the state money because the positions left vacant "must be abolished; and may only be filled or re-established under severely restricted circumstances," according to the legislation. That's the section that gave Jindal heartburn in 2009.
So when Richard returned to the House Retirement Committee with his bill this year, he offered an amendment from the administration that makes the offending provision optional. The bill had been put on hold for weeks as the administration worked toward this compromise, Richard said. "In my mind, it halfway guts the bill," he told the committee, "but it still serves a purpose for the people who want to retire early."
Rep. Joel Robideaux of Lafayette, speaker pro tem of the House, apologized for the hold-up. "I think the administration came up with the amendments to prevent the veto from happening this time," said Robideaux, who also has no party affiliation.
With that, the committee unanimously approved the changes.
Then the tide started to turn during a line of questioning from Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans. "I hope you had a witness and two notaries in the room when you cut that deal for those amendments," he said to Richard.
"I was nowhere around," Richard responded with a laugh.
LaFonta continued, "Because those people on the fourth floor speak with a forked tongue. I've seen a lot of people come through here saying they had the support, and then they shoot you down in the field."
Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, was the first lawmaker to point out that the amendment created a situation where you could end up having two people in the system, whereas under the original bill there was only one. "There's no cost savings on this anymore. We need to change it back," Cortez said. "We need to be fiscally responsible."
Richard, again laughing, said, "I won't object to that."
"I think we all liked it better that way," said Rep. J. Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell, chairman of the committee, of the original bill.
"Me too," Richard said.
To that, the committee erupted in clapping and even more laughter. "You can't beat them sometimes," Richard added.
With only one member voting no, the committee removed the amendments it had minutes earlier approved. HB 189 now heads to the House floor in its original form.
The committee's decision to buck the administration runs much deeper than a few jokes. Many lawmakers started the session skeptical of Jindal's proposed cuts to the state's workforce. With a $3 billion budget shortfall looming over the next two fiscal years, many House members want to cut more positions. Richard's bill would do that.
The hearing also revealed how some lawmakers view working with Jindal. After exempting himself from substantive ethics reform, reversing course on a legislative pay raise, supporting taxes disguised as fees and using one-time monies to patch some budget holes, the governor has little credibility among legislators.
Lawmakers dream of legislative independence, but they know Jindal will crush those dreams with his veto pen at every opportunity. They could muster the votes — and the guts — to override a veto, but that would be a rare display of ... legislative independence.
Hey, that's politics, Richard told the Retirement Committee last week. In legislative terms, that means a deal is a deal until it's broken. "I'm just trying to play the game," he said with a chuckle.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.