Piyush up to political chicanery as SB51 omitted from Senate calendar on Tuesday: are contents being hidden from public?

by tomaswell

Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show once drawled, “Ohhh, there’s mischief afoot. Yeah, mischief afoot.”

That well may be the case with Senate Bill 51 that raises the state employee retirement age.

First, a little background.

The Senate Retirement Committee was originally scheduled to meet Monday at 9:30 a.m. As opponents gathered in the committee room and overflowed into the hallway, however, word came down that the meeting would be delayed because of a lack of a quorum.

In contemporary American Politic, that normally translates to the administration does not have the necessary votes to get the bill out of committee.

But this committee was wrapped and packaged by Gov. Bobby Jindal, so that explanation wouldn’t seem to hold water. After all, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Jindal had combined to contribute more than $102,000 to five of the seven committee members.

That fact alone should offer sufficient evidence that the fix was in. It's already been shown to work for education bills and prison sales.

So, why the delay?

Apparently, there were some glitches with the bill despite assurances from the administration that provisions of the bill—and companion bills that change the final average compensation (SB47) and SB52 that increases most rank and file contributions by 3 percent—are constitutional.

For two hours committee members met with administrative officials to tweak SB51, coordinating retirement ages with time of service ostensibly so as to adversely affect as few state employees as possible.

In reality, the administration was drafting a more palatable substitute bill so as to neutralize criticism of Jindal’s retirement package by the Legislative Auditor and Gary Lawson of Strasburger Law Firm of Dallas. State Auditor Daryl Purpera retained the firm to conduct an analysis of the proposed retirement bills.

The Strasburger 38-page report opined that most of the retirement package would be ruled unconstitutional if subjected to a legal challenge.

Publicly, the administration pooh-poohed the Strasburger report but the two-hour delay Monday said proponents were having second thoughts.

Lawson, contacted as he prepared to return to Dallas, said he had no opportunity to review the substitute bill and the amendments before being called to testify in opposition to the bill.

“Nobody knows what’s in the bill,” he said, “least of all the committee members themselves.”

That didn’t stop committee members, heavily indebted to ALEC and Jindal for generous campaign contributions from one or both, from rubber-stamping their approval of the bill.

Then on Tuesday things began to take a strange turn on the Senate floor.

The Senate divides daily proceedings into the “Morning Hour,” and “Regular Order.” It is during the “Morning Hour” that Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp reads into the record the reports from each committee meeting of the day before.

This is the official on which bills have been amended and moved favorably by the respective committees. Koepp also reads reports from several committees.

This is an important technical step in the process because it officially gets the bill out of committee and back on the Senate calendar. When this is done, the amendments are posted online. The amendments remained “proposed” until the following day when they are adopted by the body (in this case, the full Senate) and the bill is passed to Second Reading.

The report from the Retirement Committee, however, was not included during Tuesday’s “Morning Hour.”

Then, on Tuesday evening, after the Senate completed its calendar for the day, the body “reverted” to the “Morning Hour,” a normal procedure that allows Koepp to read communications from the House or from the governor.

It was at this point that Koepp suddenly read into the record the report from the Senate Retirement Committee from Monday. He reported SB33, SB47, SB52 and SB740, all “favorably as amended.”

SB51, the most controversial of the lot, the one that raises the retirement age to 67, was not among those reported by Koepp.

That means that the bill is technically still in committee and more importantly (and more ominously), it means that the substitute bill and its mystery amendments are still unavailable to the public.

More than 24 hours after the committee voted out a bill that not one member of the committee had read, the public still has no idea what the substitute bill is, what it says or what it does.

Frank Jobert, executive director of the Louisiana Retired Employees Association, expressed his puzzlement at the omission of SB51 in Koepp’s report.

“Perhaps they (the administration) don’t have the votes on the (Senate) floor,” he said. “I believe even the committee members don’t know what they voted for and are hesitant to go further down this road until they know what they passed out of committee merely to please the governor.”

Jobert added that he had heard that the 3 percent employee contribution increase might yet be ruled a tax or a fee by the Senate leadership “which could cause them to start over in the House or stymie the measure because it is a non-fiscal session,” he said. “This remains to be seen.”

The Louisiana Constitution prohibits consideration of taxes in even-numbered years and last year, when Jindal attempted a similar move, then-House Speaker Jim Tucker said any increase in contributions imposed on state employees would constitute a tax.

Jindal has consistently rejected efforts to increase taxes—at least on his corporate supporters. He had no problem with forcing college tuition increases and apparently has no compunctions about imposing the 3 percent increase on employees’ contributions.

While the reasons for omitting SB51 from the report remain unclear, one thing is for certain: the action was intentional on the part of the administration.

The bill has to be made public at some point in time, so why the parliamentary chicanery? The only possible explanation is to keep the contents of the bill away from public scrutiny for another day or so in order to allow less time for opponents to react.

Jindal Communications Director Kyle Plotkin earlier today issued a statement about a fake Facebook posting in which someone impersonated the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Kristy Nichols as telling state employees, “We are watching you.”

In that statement, Plotkin said, “We have big challenges and need to have a substantive debate about the issues. These underhanded attacks distract from the issues. It’s unfortunate and surprising that someone would stoop this low to try and win.”

Substitute “tactics” for “attacks” and we couldn’t agree more.

Just another day in the Piyush transparent, ethical and accountable administration.

Michief afoot, indeed.

tomaswell | April 17, 2012 at

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