Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Jindal's usual allies are nowhere to be found

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Gov. Bobby Jindal's political prowess over the past five years cannot be ignored. He began by taking on issues that appeared hefty to voters but which actually took very little political capital to bring down, such as "reforming" the ethics code and cracking down on Internet sex offenders.

  Then Jindal reached higher for landmark reforms to education, retirement and health care. These were more controversial, and they didn't all succeed as Jindal had hoped. Legislators passed only a portion of his retirement package, and he implemented most of his health care reforms via mid-year budget cuts. Where he did succeed, he stacked key committees with like-minded lawmakers and lined up support early on from the state's top special interests.

  That kind of front-end work is not evident nowadays, as Jindal prepares to present his plan to remove individual and corporate income taxes for a more robust sales tax base. Ironically, the governor now rails against "powerful special interests" — some of whom he courted in previous battles.

  These days, Jindal's usual allies are nowhere to be found. Groups that once ran interference for the governor appear to be sitting on the bench for the tax fight — at least so far. For instance, the influential Louisiana Association of Business Industry (LABI), which backed Jindal's education and pension reforms, has yet to take a firm position, although it is leaning against. LABI's expected support for repealing the corporate income tax has been tempered by the raft of new taxes on businesses.

  "LABI's policy is clear: If the tax swap proposal is introduced as a net increase in business taxes or is amended during the legislative process to take that form, LABI will oppose it," LABI president Dan Juneau says.

  The Louisiana Bankers Association (LBA) is in the same boat. "It's going to be a very dynamic process and it's difficult to determine how it all will affect us," says LBA Executive Director Bob Taylor. Although financial services are supposed to be exempt from the plan, Taylor says banks rely on business services that would be taxed.

  The Louisiana Municipal Association, which represents city governments, also has "no position" on the plan, but its executive board "still has major concerns regarding the sweeping reform." How the plan will affect the ability of municipalities to maintain or increase local sales taxes is chief among them.

  Other lobbies that typically avoid tax fights but normally stand in Jindal's corner are likewise staying quiet. The Louisiana Family Forum, a faith-based advocacy group, ranks among them. "We're trying to steer clear of it," President Gene Mills says. "There's some good stuff in there mixed with some not-so-good stuff."

Reminded of the 250 or so preachers, priests and ministers blasting the plan's impact on low-income families, Mills says he "won't attack" their choices. "I just wonder if they have good information with which to base their decisions," he adds.

  The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, which usually reacts in a big and noisy fashion, has been playing coy until recently. "Through our conversations, the administration has indicated that the oil and natural gas service sector would remain exempt from the sales tax on services," LOGA president Don Briggs says.

  So where is the rest of Jindal's sup- port system?

  Most of it can be found on the na- tional level.

  The Beacon Hill Institute, the economic research arm of Suffolk University in Boston that is backed chiefly by conservative money, released a study last week calling the plan a "powerful incentive for Louisiana's households and businesses to save and invest, spurring increases in employment and incomes." Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform also supports Jindal's plan.

  Using that conservative network as a fundraising base, Jindal is passing the hat among wealthy donors who would benefit greatly from his proposed tax swap. The money — about $750,000 will be raised by Jindal's independent political arm Believe in Louisiana — is expected to pay for advertising in an effort to go over the heads of the same special interests that helped him achieve his goals early on.

  Rallying broad public support to pass controversial policies is nothing new for Team Jindal. He did it last year as part of his education push, but he had several partners in Louisiana to pick up the slack. This time around, with little support thus far from inside the state, his media outreach strategy will have to be the political equivalent of a silver bullet.

  If it misses the mark, Jindal's tax plan appears headed for failure, potentially leaving him even more alone in Louisiana than he is now.

­— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at jeremy@jeremyalford.com. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.

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