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Other people's money 

Ever wonder what Orleans Parish Assessor Erroll G. Williams and Jefferson Parish Assessor Tom Capella get paid? Last year, their base pay was $125,290. But that's just their salary. Williams got another $8,770.30 in "certification pay" last year for completing continuing education courses. Capella hadn't completed the courses as of last year, but he has since earned his certification and now is eligible for the additional pay.

  Both men also get a 10 percent expense allowance.

  When all income sources (compiled by the legislative auditor) are cobbled together, Williams' total compensation last year was more than $147,000. Capella's topped $137,000. That's significantly more than the $127,400 Gov. Bobby Jindal reported to the Ethics Administration.

  Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Erath, introduced legislation to make assessors, clerks, registrars, district attorneys and other parochial officials publish their offices' salary info on a local government website.

  "The public should know what these expenditures are," she says.

  After intense lobbying by local officials and their associations, Champagne's bill died in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. Opponents claimed that only political adversaries during election seasons want such information. They complained about employees' salaries being published as well, although that information is already public record. "We were also told that there are about 15 parishes that do not even have websites," Champagne says.

  Meanwhile, Senate Bill 63 by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, would grant assessors a 4 percent annual pay raise for four consecutive years, effective immediately. Mills' bill made it through the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee and needs approval from the Senate Finance Committee. According to an analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Office, the bill would cost local governments $4.7 million through 2017.

  Mills says lawmakers have been receptive only because the money would come from local sources and the raises would be permissive, not mandatory. "Plus, they haven't received a raise in seven years, and the bill calls for more certification," he adds, echoing what supporters of other pay raise proposals this year are saying.

  Already passed by the House in a 58-34 vote is House Bill 174 by Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, which would give clerks of court the same 4 percent bump under a similar framework. The cost would be $1.2 million over the next four years. Like the assessor pay raise proposal, clerks would have to increase their salaries using their own budgets. The bill now must navigate the Senate for final passage.

  On another front, Senate Bill 188 by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, would increase salaries this year for judges on the Supreme Court by 5.5 percent, courts of appeal by 3.7 percent and district courts by 4 percent. Each jurist also would get a 2.1 percent boost annually between 2014 and 2017, as recommended by the Judicial Compensation Commission. Martiny's bill was passed by the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, but, like the assessors' proposal, it also was recommitted to the Finance Committee.

  Unlike the other pay raise proposals, which rely on local government revenues, Martiny's bill would tap the state general fund for $8 million over the next five years.

  All this is playing out as lawmakers grapple with a $1.3 billion revenue shortfall in the coming fiscal year and local governments look for more aid from the state and the feds. From a PR perspective, the timing of the pay raises couldn't be worse. On one hand, lawmakers are being asked to increase revenue by reducing tax credits, which would take money away from businesses and citizens. On the other, they're being asked to give some elected officials even more money. Unless the public or Jindal reacts, lawmakers will continue agreeing with the two strongest, soundest arguments for the raises: They're long overdue and would come from local coffers.

  Many local officials receive automobile allowances in addition to smaller perks they rightly deserve, ranging from parking to operational autonomy. Many also get health insurance, sometimes extended to their families, and generous retirement plans.

  Lawmakers also are debating a budget that some propose to balance by taking $500 million in one-time money to prop up higher education and other vital services. That money won't necessarily be there next year — for a need that's always there.

  At the end of the day, lawmakers face huge fiscal challenges beyond finding ways to give pay hikes to local officials and judges. The only challenge that would be bigger would be finding a way to increase their own pay, which is not likely to happen for a long, long time.

— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at jeremy@jeremyalford.com. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.

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