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The last day of the special session Friday Oct. 23, 2020, in the Louisiana House chamber.

As the third legislative session of the year — the second called by the legislators themselves — sputtered to a close, a reasonable question is whether it was all worth it?

This new class of state senators and representatives — 144 took their oaths in January — can go home and confidently say it was personally rewarding.

Each lawmaker pocketed an average of $40,955 so far this year, according to accounting records from the House Clerk and the Senate Secretary.

True, that’s not a lot. But it’s fairly close to the $41,454 an average Jefferson Parish worker pulled down during the same 42-week period, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. And legislators received far more than the roughly $6,422 in benefits an unemployed person gets.

Besides, being a legislator is a part-time job that is supposed to pay $16,800 per year plus $161 per diem, which adds roughly $12,000 if they complete their work during the regular annual session.

Florida lawmakers make $29,697 per year plus $152 per diem but don’t meet as often, according to a July report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alabama pays its legislators $49,861 annually plus $85 to $100 if they have to spend the night in Montgomery.

NCSL reports that most assemblies decide legislative pay. But doing so is politically unpopular.

Louisiana is a case study on the issue for the NCSL. In 2009, Louisiana lawmakers tried to raise their salaries, which hadn’t been touched since 1980, from $16,800 to $37,500. The new salary would not have included a lot of the add-ons Louisiana legislators now get paid.

Despite a storm of invective, the bill landed on then Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk. He said he’d probably just let it become law without his signature. All the anger then turned on Jindal, whose reputation as the crusading conservative reformer took a massive hit. He vetoed the bill.

Though the previous Legislature returned to Baton Rouge seven times during their four-year term, few of those sessions were as long as the two this class has called.

So far this year, Louisiana taxpayers will have paid out $6.2 million directly to lawmakers. That includes per diem, mileage, monthly allowances, unvouchered expenses and the 49 days earlier this year when legislators were supposed to be meeting in regular session but could not because of the pandemic. They were paid anyway. That number doesn’t include other administrative expenses like staff overtime, supplies and refreshments.

Going into 2020 several million dollars was spent by special interests to elect a majority that turned out more conservative and more sympathetic to the business community.

The newly seated representatives and senators had the numbers to do pretty much as they please. If House Republicans voted as one, they are two votes shy of having the needed two-thirds majority to overturn any gubernatorial veto, while the GOP state Senate is a couple of votes over the supermajority.

Of the 70 items on the special session agenda that lawmakers said required immediate attention, 16 had no bills filed to address those emergencies, according to the Louisiana News Bureau, which tracks legislation.

What seemed the key issue for Republican lawmakers was to pass a mechanism that would remove the governor’s power to oversee the state’s reaction to COVID-19. Tired of business suspensions, social distancing and wearing masks, the majority advanced eight bills to overturn the governor’s executive authority.

Finally, after much discussion, lawmakers passed House Bill 4, which gives the Legislature some of that power. Fearful that the governor would veto the measure, House members Friday signed a petition they say should temporarily suspend the health emergency order on which the governor’s actions are based. But that likely will end up in an expensive court battle.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, acknowledged Friday that a lot of time was used up in the fight over the governor’s emergency powers. But the main issues were addressed.

Rules were changed that allowed public schools in storm-ravaged southwest Louisiana to receive their usual appropriation. Plus, $42 million was found and rules were adjusted to immediately start rebuilding damaged buildings on higher education campuses. Legislators also were able to delay for a year the triggers that would have required businesses to pay more taxes and the unemployed to receive a smaller weekly check in order to refill the unemployment trust fund that pays benefits.

“All of these things could not have been done had we not gone into session,” Cortez said. “So, the focus was a lot on the oversight of the governor’s emergency orders, (but) there was a lot more work that got done.”


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.