Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

Gov. Bobby Jindal approaches the middle of his term with a 63 percent approval rating but a policy record that's sketchy

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If there's a transition point along the political spectrum that's nestled snuggly between unfulfilled promise and tangible greatness, a kind of professional purgatory, that's where you'll find Gov. Bobby Jindal these days.

  He still has two years in his first term, and in those two years he'll face some extraordinary challenges. Louisiana's five-year budget outlook forecasts a $1 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2011, which begins next July, and a $2 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2012. While the sagging economy and other culprits share the blame, Jindal says the "most significant factor" is the cut in federal health care funding for those using Medicaid. "There's no doubt that this will be the real test for Gov. Jindal," says Joshua Stockley, former president of the Louisiana Political Science Association. "Other state governments have already made drastic reductions, and this governor now has to guide his state through the same process."

  Jindal also faces two more hurricane seasons. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco's experiences during Hurricane Katrina prove that Mother Nature can be as devastating to a political career as angry voters. Jindal will have to face those two hurricane seasons as he continues to oversee the state's recovery from four hurricanes that have hit Louisiana in as many years.

  This is an exciting and treacherous place for Jindal to be right now. On the issues of ethics reform, fiscal restraint and safeguarding local businesses, his administration has made some inroads, but some of those roads are paved with broken promises.

  During the last two years, Jindal has vetoed line items for nonprofits and other groups that don't fit into his administration's guidelines for state support of nongovernmental programs and organizations. But some of those organizations get state money anyway. According to a search of public records, 31 agencies and nonprofits either subsequently received a state contract or were already under contract with the state at the time of Jindal's vetoes.

  Last summer, for example, Jindal vetoed $25,000 meant for the Joy Corporation (it provides training, education and rehabilitation "to meet the holistic needs of the local community"). Months later, the nonprofit secured a $30,000 state contract with the Department of Health and Hospitals. In 2008, Jindal vetoed $25,000 each for Doorway to Louisiana and Louisiana Ballooning. Again, the two groups turned around and secured contracts worth $13,718 and $15,000, respectively, from the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. These are just a few examples.

  On another front, Jindal is still dealing with hiccups that followed his much-ballyhooed ethics reform session of 2008. Many wonder if the "reforms" were so restrictive that they might require the administration to swallow its pride and backtrack on certain initiatives it once heralded. For example, Public Affairs Research Council President Jim Brandt says a study group should have been formed already and finished its findings with regard to Jindal's move to take adjudicatory authority away from the state Ethics Board. "The process of deciding the guilt or innocence of those accused of ethics violations is too important to be altered without thorough legal study and thoughtful consideration," Brandt says.

  In a prepared statement earlier this fall, Kyle Plotkin, Jindal's spokesperson, said the governor remains committed to his promise of a "gold standard" for ethics in Louisiana, and that includes taking action in future legislative sessions. "We've made incredible progress through the comprehensive and aggressive ethics reforms put into law last year," Plotkin says. "Ethics will absolutely remain a cornerstone issue of our administration as it's indelibly linked with our economic development priorities."

  On economic development, last year Jindal accelerated the elimination of the tax on business investment (Louisiana was one of only three states in the country taxing manufacturing machinery and equipment). He also pushed to hasten removing the tax on capital investment (taxable debt will be completely gone by next July) and to strip business utility taxes. Those are key gains, but Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, says more work must be done. "Louisiana ranks 15th in the category of the total amount of state and local business taxes paid," Juneau says. "That isn't good, but it gets worse. When the amount of state and local business taxes as a percentage of all taxes collected is measured, Louisiana comes out fifth-highest in the nation."

  Elsewhere, Jindal's education and health care proposals have stirred controversy and jarred old-line thinkers, but his policy teams have yet to make substantial gains. Politically, his endorsement of candidates has proved to be the kiss of death, and he created legislative hostility by first supporting and then opposing a pay hike for lawmakers.

  Finally, Jindal's thinly veiled national aspirations continue to overshadow many of his decisions. His name is included in most national polls regarding the 2012 presidential race, and he has traveled outside of the state some 40 times to raise money — ostensibly for his 2011 re-election campaign. Overall, how he handles the difficulties that await him in the second half of his first term will tell us more about Bobby Jindal than his promises and performance thus far.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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