Rising cost of friendship
For a legislator in the previous term, it was easy to be a friend of Bobby Jindal.
The governor only asked lawmakers to do nothing that would inconvenience him, such as requiring more transparency in his office or in any way impinge upon his nearly absolute power over the executive branch, or the legislative one, too, for that matter.
Back then, being a friend of Bobby did not get you crosswise with anyone else, except for sexual predators and vendors of bath salts. Those were the days.
The new day and term bring some harder choices and greater costs for being “in” with Jindal. Legislators figured as much from early news that the governor seeks to tighten tenure on teachers so that it is harder to get and easier to lose, and to make state workers, not getting pay raises again, contribute more toward their retirement while the state chips in less. Lawmakers have fielded some phone calls and emails on those subjects, but they are bracing for when the pressure comes face-to-face.
“This class of new legislators and the one before them don't know what it's like to get into a war with the teacher unions,” observed a former lawmaker, recently term-limited.
“Like getting lobbied by a first-grade teacher?” asked the reporter.
“Like my first-grade teacher,” the ex-pol said, with a shudder.
Another sign of trouble came earlier this month to those attending the legislative committee meeting to receive the governor's executive budget. Their antennae rose at the sight of the room packed with a lot of old people; you know, the ones who vote. Worse, they were wearing T-shirts.
The senior citizens' beef was with the administration's plan to transfer the Office of Elderly Affairs from the governor's office to the Department of Health and Hospitals. They suspect and fear, according to a supporter, that the nonmedical services of their local Councils on Aging—transportation, utility assistance and Meals on Wheels—will be sacrificed by shifting more money to medical services, which can be matched with federal Medicaid funds, thus freeing up dollars for other parts of the budget. Administration officials deny that any services to seniors will be shorted. Legislators want to believe them, and hope senior voters do.
Once the meeting started, Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater droned through the PowerPoint presentation detailing layoffs, selloffs, rate adjustments, consolidations, outsourcings, efficiencies and other euphemisms for claiming to do more with less.
Committee members could predict the pushback, like the email response from the Louisiana Hospital Association, aggrieved at proposed Medicaid reimbursement rate cuts and promising to “educate and remind legislators about the critical services” they will be paid less to provide.
Then it became personal. In a now-famous exchange, Rep. James Armes, a Leesville Democrat, took exception to the administration proposal to raise the retirement age to 67 for state workers who are not yet 55; most can now retire at 60. Alarmed at having to tell his wife, a 52-year-old school nurse, that she will have to wait 15 years to retire, Armes said, “My anniversary is next week. I don't think I'll live that long.”
He was reassured that the increased retirement age would not affect school employees. Not this year, anyway, with so many controversial education issues already in play. But the concern about Jindal and Co. that Mrs. Armes and school employees should have is that next they will come for them.
Many legislators figure as much, which makes the increased retirement age for veteran workers (it already applies to new hires) the most toxic of Jindal's initiatives and unlikely to pass in its current form. But it's also classic Jindal strategy to include a few items that attract heated opposition, while the rest of his agenda passes intact.
Jindal might ask, What are friends for if not to do very, very hard things for him? There are rewards for being a FOB—some have landed sweet state jobs after leaving office—but legislators, depending on their districts, also are calculating the higher price to pay. Jindal might rock some boats, sink others, but in four years, if not sooner, he'll be gone. For some of his good friends at the Capitol, if they are not careful, come re-election time, they will be, too.
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