Alford: Ted James’ departure keeps Capitol’s revolving doors spinning

(File photo)

Baton Rouge Rep. Ted James, a Democrat, is the latest member to exit the Louisiana Legislature. James was expected to officially resign this week to become a regional director for the U.S. Small Business Administration.

President Joe Biden selected James to oversee Region 6, which comprises Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The job is an important one on the federal level and is a political win for both James and Louisiana.

But James’ departure from the state House of Representatives sets up a number of dominoes that will have politicos here whispering over the next month or so. Inside the rails of the Legislature, for example, new chairpersons will need to be named to lead the House Criminal Justice Committee and the Legislative Black Caucus—two high-profile positions James is leaving vacant. 

There will also need to be a special election called in House District 101 for yet another midterm legislative race. Establishment support in the Baton Rouge district is building for a bid by attorney Vanessa LaFleur, but others are encouraging East Baton Rouge School Board member Dawn Collins to run as well. The legislative leadership will officially set a date for the special election after James resigns this week.

Once called, the House race will be the eighth special legislative election of the current term, which hit its midway point at the turn of the new year. More special elections are certainly on the way. For a variety of reasons, state lawmakers are exiting their jobs at a surprising rate. 

Last term, from 2016 through 2019, lawmakers set a modern record for resignations and forced 22 special elections. Many complained of the hyper-partisan environment in Baton Rouge, some (like James this term) left for better jobs and others just wanted out.

More recently, there have been complaints by lawmakers about the full-time nature of their part-time elected jobs, which pay a measly $16,800 per year. “I think we need to have a discussion about what it means to have a part-time Legislature,” Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee tweeted last month.

The $16,800 wage was established 41 years ago and was determined at the time to be a fair shake for a part-time government job. Lawmakers did try to boost their own pay in 2008, when former Gov. Bobby Jindal initially agreed to a plan that would have increased their base salary from $16,800 to $37,500 a year. But the plan eventually fell apart.

Jindal had promised during the preceding election cycle not to support legislative pay raises—and then he did just that. So Jindal, reading the political tea leaves, broke free from his vow to lawmakers and delivered a veto that mirrored his earlier campaign promise, thus double-crossing legislators instead of voters.

It’s important to remember that while $16,800 is the salary cap in Louisiana, the figure doesn’t represent total compensation. Lawmakers likewise receive an expense allowance and a per diem for every day of official work in and outside of Baton Rouge. The total figure can add up quickly and commonly passes the $50,000 mark for the folks who have to be at the Capitol the most, like committee chairs and the legislative leadership. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, legislative salaries across the country are going up, at least for the 41 states that pay their legislators. The average base salary last year, excluding per-diem and expense payments, was $39,216, up from 2020’s average of $38,370.

Would increasing salaries be enough to cure the outmigration of Louisiana lawmakers? That might be a good start, and one that’s overdue. But compensation will do little to nothing about the political environment in Baton Rouge, which is driving this grass-is-greener trend more than anything else.

How we fix that ailment is a much bigger question—and until solutions are offered and embraced, the resignations will continue.

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.