Three years ago, Louisiana voters were hopping mad at state legislators who voted to more than double their annual pay. Some voters organized recall petitions. Bloggers and radio talk shows pressured Gov. Bobby Jindal into vetoing the bill, and many vowed never to forgive those who voted for the immediate pay hike.
As recently as last April, a statewide survey by Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR) found more than 86 percent of voters saying they would be "less likely" to vote to re-elect lawmakers who voted for the raise.
Such sentiments suggest that anyone who voted for the raise is a sitting duck. Yet, surprisingly, all is quiet on most fronts with less than four weeks to go before qualifying.
In one local contest, however, the pay raise will be the dominant issue.
House District 94, which now includes all of Lakeview and much of Metairie's lakefront area, has two Republican incumbents facing off in what promises to be a bloody fight. One of them voted for the raise and the other voted against it. The lines between them could not be more clearly drawn.
Rep. John LaBruzzo of Metairie, whose district was carved up and moved to another parish, is running against fellow Rep. Nick Lorusso of Lakeview. LaBruzzo voted for the pay hike in 2008 — and signed an affidavit saying he would accept the raise once the hated Stelly tax was repealed. Lorusso voted against the raise and signed a declaration refusing to accept it.
Soon after the controversial raise passed, many of LaBruzzo's constituents howled in protest, along with voters across the state. That sent him running for cover. After being one of the most vocal supporters of the raise, he penned a letter to Jindal begging him to veto it. "It has become obvious to me that we, the Legislature, grossly misjudged the issue of legislative pay during this past session," LaBruzzo wrote.
No doubt LaBruzzo, who peppered Lakeview with signs soon after new district lines were drawn, will want to take voters' minds off the pay raise by drawing other distinctions between himself and Lorusso, who already has slammed him for his pay raise vote. "I ran for the job knowing what the pay was," Lorusso says. "Mr. LaBruzzo won't be able to hide from his vote — or his affidavit."
LaBruzzo responds that the pay raise is a non-issue. "Yes, I voted for the pay raise. But the way it went down — getting it immediately — I was the first official in the House and the loudest voice asking the governor to repeal it. And a few days later he did. We didn't get the raise, so what's the issue?"
On other fronts as well, LaBruzzo has stirred controversy. He filed several bills to drug test welfare recipients, and his proposal to pay poor women $1,000 to get sterilized made him a pariah even among his conservative Jefferson Parish colleagues.
The pay raise will be an issue in many legislative races, but nowhere else will voters choose between two incumbents who voted differently on it.
"Three years later, voters were still irritated with this particular vote," says SMOR pollster Bernie Pinsonat of Baton Rouge. "Legislators who face a well-financed challenger will absolutely have to defend their vote to increase their pay."