Raises for local officials approved

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Pay raise bills for judges, sheriffs, parish clerks of court and local tax assessors are sailing through the Louisiana Legislature, and Gov. Bobby Jindal said Friday he’ll sign them.

The Senate gave final backing in a 22-8 vote Friday to a bill by Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, that will let local tax assessors raise their salaries by 4 percent annually for four straight years.

Last week, lawmakers gave final passage to a measure by Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, that will allow annual 4 percent pay raises for parish clerks of court for the next four years.

Meanwhile, a bill by Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, outlining five years of pay raises for judges is only a few steps from the governor’s desk as well _ with sheriffs’ salaries tied to the measure.

“We’ll abide by the will of the Legislature. When those bills get to our desk, we’ll sign those into law,” Jindal said.

Supporters say the officials haven’t had raises in several years, and they note that voters can remove the elected officials if they believe the pay hikes were inappropriate.

“If the citizens of a parish disagree with them, they can vote them out of office,” Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, said during a Senate debate on the assessors’ bill.

For clerks of court, assessors and sheriffs, the dollars would have to come from local funds, not the state treasury. For the judges, money would come from the judicial budget, which senators have proposed to boost by $2.5 million in state general fund – the cost of the raises in the first year.

“It is important to the continued growth of this state that we have a good, solid judiciary, and we don’t need any disincentive for people to run,’’ said Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, sponsor of the judge’s salary hike.

Critics say the pay bumps may be well-earned but are inappropriate since rank-and-file state workers haven’t received raises in years because of ongoing state budget problems.

“Who speaks for the state workers? Who stands up and battles for those who have gone years without any increase?” said Sen. Gerald Long, R-Natchitoches, during one debate, acknowledging that it wasn’t “good politics” to oppose the local elected officials.

For tax assessors, the raises could carry a price tag up to $4.6 million over five years.

The local elected officials currently earn anywhere from $88,000 to more than $108,000 in salary depending on the size of their parishes, plus salary adjustments tied to certifications and other add-ons.

For clerks, the salary boosts could cost up to $1.2 million over four years, and would only be allowed if clerks complete an annual certification and maintain the certification. Not all 65 clerks are certified, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

Clerks currently are paid up to $108,000 a year in the largest parishes and up to $88,000 annually in smaller parishes.

For judges, the bill would give Supreme Court justices a 5.5 percent pay increase on July 1, with appeal court judges getting a 3.7 percent boost and district court judges receiving a 4 percent increase.

After that, every July from 2014 through 2017, all three sets of judges – along with city and parish court judges – would get a 2.1 percent annual bump in pay.

By 2017, Supreme Court justices would make $172,343; appellate court judges, $161,275; and trial court judges $155,279. The raises would cost the state $8 million over five years.

Sheriffs would be in line for pay hikes as well, because a law allows them to get the same level raises as district court judges.