Legislators gave Louisiana State Police a hefty 20 percent pay raise Friday as other state employees could face layoffs and furloughs because of an escalating state government financial crisis.
The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget voted overwhelmingly to give about 1,000 troopers the annual salary bump, which will start in early February. The pay increase will cost $10.15 million between now and the June 30 end of the current budget year.
Seven members of the combined House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee opposed the salary hike, including committee chairs. Thirty-eight legislators voted for the measure to make the funds available.
“There’s nobody that doesn’t support State Police,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville. But he still has a lot of questions, including “is the money going to be there?”
Money for the raises will come from a special fund into which flows fines levied against drivers without automobile insurance. The committee approved transfer of the money into State Police’s salary account.
State Police Col. Mike Edmonson, who originally sought a 30 percent hike, told the panel that the pay raises are needed to keep trooper salaries competitive with other law enforcement agencies. The 30 percent raise plus benefits would have cost $34.5 million in the next fiscal year.
He reminded panelists that a dozen years have passed since the last pay raise and now the State Police lags behind officers and deputies across the state and troopers in other states.
“I’m not asking you to find money,” Edmonson said. “I’m asking you to allocate money already there.”
The room was jampacked with troopers, and committee members acknowledged several they recognized from their districts.
The Legislative Fiscal Office recommended against adoption of the 30 percent pay raise plan, saying analysts could not determine if sufficient revenues would flow into the fund to cover the pay and related benefits now and in the future. Legislative Fiscal Officer John Carpenter said a 15 percent to 20 percent raise would be sustainable based on an analysis of current collections.
State Sen. Gerald Long said legislators should take the recommendation of “the experts” and adopt a 20 percent increase. “We should not be encouraging, as legislators, approval in any manner, anything that does not have a chance to be sustainable,” said Long, R-Winnfield. The 20 percent plan costs are $4.5 million less than what Edmonson had sought.
Opponents questioned whether sufficient dollars would be generated to cover costs that would rise annually and questioned the timing of the pay increases as higher education and health care face hundreds of millions in cuts associated with a $1.4 billion budget shortfall.
State Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, said he does not like to deprive anyone of a pay raise. “However, with the magnitude of the poor economic situation of the state, with no money for pay raises for state workers, when the state is faced with looking at furloughs, $200 million to $300 million in cuts for higher education and a $1.4 billion shortfall in our budget for 2015, this is simply the worst time to bring up a raise,” Armes said.
Proponents said they had no problem voting to raise the pay for the rank-and-file troopers.
State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, said the Jindal administration “asked us to make the right decision today.” Gov. Bobby Jindal’s aides have been lobbying legislators on the phone from Europe, where the governor is currently visiting.
State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said the fees being used to fund the raises are hurting a lot of her constituents. She suggested that legislation may be forthcoming to reduce the insurance reinstatement fees. But she said she had no problem with a trooper pay raise.
State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, who has worked in law enforcement, supported the pay raises. But he said, “I don’t like being backed into a corner at the last minute ... on something this critical.”
Opponents also praised State Police but said they had problems with the way the pay raise request was suddenly dropped upon them this week without time to get questions answered. They also worried about the long-term financial obligation of the raises.
“What happens if next year we see this fund is not getting the money it needs to pay (for the raises)?” state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, asked. “Where would that money come from at that point?”
Edmonson said he would have to work within his budget to take care of the shortfall.
State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, argued that requirements of the law have not been met for the fund to even be tapped. Adley said the law requires initial funding to go to creation and maintenance of a real-time system to verify motor vehicle insurance before dollars can go to State Police. The system is not in place nor has a request for proposal been issued, he said. “This law says you can’t get this money until you implement this program,” he said.