The end of the legislative session is busy and chaotic, but you can get a lot done if you don’t pay attention.
That’s what happened to a little provision inserted at the last minute in an otherwise inoffensive bill. It was very inadequately explained by legislators handling the bill, so most members voted for it. Yet there are a few who were awake, and the little provision is now a political scandal.
Turns out it will give one of the State Capitol’s most connected insiders a substantial increase in his lifetime retirement benefits — although Col. Mike Edmonson of State Police says that he is only getting what other troopers get.
Not exactly. Edmonson and many others enrolled in the old DROP retirement program, allowing them to continue working past retirement age, but capping their retirement benefits to current salaries. Many other state employees want to change their DROP status now, but special retirement bills have wilted in retirement committees of House and Senate. The last-minute Edmonson provision sneaked around committee review.
Edmonson, then a captain, later became superintendent of State Police, and now has a more substantial salary, and because of the retirement provision passed on the final day of the 2014 Legislature, he will get a benefit based on the higher salary.
Edmonson and one other trooper benefit from the provision in the bill by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, who said the change was part of paper-shuffling in a conference committee that meets behind closed doors, often with aides performing the work for members of House and Senate. But Morrell and Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, pitched the bill as innocent and enough members bought it.
Edmonson now says that he doesn’t know who initiated the change that will do him so much good. This in a building in which the calculation of retirement benefits — sometimes month by month — is attended to with the precision of diamond-cutters at work.
In Edmonson’s case, he’s been paying in as a colonel for seven years, but this is not a small benefit, although it is not clear just how much it will be. The actuarial note on the little provision in the Morrell bill is that it will cost the retirement system $300,000 over five years — for two people.
Morrell says the chaos of the end of the session and the problems with the closed-door conference committees is the issue here.
In a conference committee, three members from each house reconcile differing versions of House- and Senate-passed measures.
Quite often, this is not really a meeting — the members of the conference committee sign a report to the chambers worked out by aides or, in cases where the governor has an interest, from the governor’s office. The two chambers must make an up-or-down vote on many conference reports in the last days of the session.
Members rely upon the good faith of the authors of the bill to protect them from scandals like this. But Morrell and Arnold failed their colleagues, because this favoritism to a capitol insider is not going to be politically popular.