Gov. John Bel Edwards keeps Bobby Jindal-era salaries he criticized as ‘exorbitant’ _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Gov. John Bel Edwards speaks during a news conference held to discuss budget options, Tuesday, January 19, 2016, at the State Capitol.

When he was a candidate, John Bel Edwards said Louisiana’s Cabinet secretaries were paid too much by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, calling the salaries “exorbitant.” But since he moved into the Governor’s Office, Edwards has kept most of those salaries in place and boosted them further in some instances.

Edwards is paying the leaders of two executive branch agencies more than they received under his predecessor, according to payroll data and pay rate announcements reviewed by The Associated Press. And the governor has kept most other Cabinet secretary salaries intact even though some were criticized as excessive when Jindal hired people at those rates.

Top advisers in the Governor’s Office are getting higher paychecks as well, with more six-figure salaries for Edwards’ executive staff than Jindal paid.

Decisions by Edwards to keep Jindal’s salary levels — and bump some paychecks higher — come as Louisiana grapples with its worst budget troubles in nearly 30 years. Public colleges and health services are threatened with deep cuts, and Edwards is asking lawmakers to raise taxes to fill gaps.

And the pay rates don’t dovetail with Edwards’ rhetoric when he ran for office. The Democratic candidate bristled at the Jindal administration’s salaries when questioned about them in a November runoff debate.

“We’re not going to pay the same salaries that Bobby Jindal’s been paying. They’re exorbitant. They’re too high. We’re going to reduce those costs right off the top,” Edwards said at the time.

But since becoming governor, Edwards, who receives a $130,000 salary outlined in state law, appears to have changed his mind.

The Edwards administration said the governor is structuring the executive branch differently than his Republican predecessor to operate it more efficiently, is paying fewer people to do more work and is cutting back on outside lawyers that Jindal frequently used.

“Unlike in the past, Gov. Edwards is working to bring Louisiana talent back to the Governor’s Office,” Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said in a statement. “The salaries reflect his interest in bringing the best and brightest people from here in Louisiana to help him lead the state at a very difficult time.”

The highest-paid Cabinet official in the Edwards administration is Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson, who is tasked with helping devise and shepherd through the Legislature a tax package aimed at raising new money to help stabilize the budget.

Robinson kept the same pay Jindal gave his last revenue secretary, Tim Barfield: $250,000 a year.

But when Jindal announced Barfield’s salary three years ago, it caused consternation in the Legislature because it was twice what the job paid previously. Barfield initially took a different title to get that pay rate, in a work-around until the Legislature agreed to raise the salary cap. Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, unsuccessfully tried to block Barfield’s appointment.

While he kept the revenue secretary salary flat, Edwards boosted another of the top paychecks in his administration, to Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who serves as the governor’s chief financial adviser and is leading state budget-rebalancing efforts.

A Republican former lieutenant governor, Dardenne is receiving a $237,500 annual salary, a more than $33,000 increase.

Drawing the same salary is Edwards’ pick for economic development secretary, Don Pierson. His $237,500 pay rate is less than the $320,000 Jindal gave Stephen Moret in the economic development job — a widely disparaged salary. But Pierson is receiving the same salary as the man who filled the job after Moret left state government.

Edwards bumped up the pay for his transportation secretary by nearly $7,000 to $176,900 annually.

Salaries have been raised for Edwards’ executive staff as well.

For example, the $180,000 salary allotted to Edwards’ executive counsel is $15,000 more than Jindal’s chief lawyer received, and the $110,000-a-year pay rate for Edwards’ communications director is $16,400 higher.

Edwards dropped one Cabinet-level salary. His homeland security director will receive $135,000 a year for the job, $30,000 less than Jindal paid.

FOLLOW THIS LINK to see how Edwards’ Cabinet salaries compare to what Jindal paid.