It's fitting that Gov. Bobby Jindal has been tapped by congressional Republicans to give their party's official response to President Barack Obama's first address to the U.S. Congress this Tuesday. To the rest of the nation, the night of the president's speech will be just another Tuesday. In Louisiana, it will be Mardi Gras — and Jindal will be masquerading as a crusading young budget-cutter.
The governor is fond of saying that he cut the state budget and reduced the number of state employees. He did neither. On the budget front, the feds have reduced the massive flow of post-Katrina aid coming to Louisiana, which was to be expected. That had the effect of reducing the overall state budget. Although the reduction in federal aid had nothing whatsoever to do with Bobby Jindal's fiscal policies, he likes to take credit for the overall budget reduction.
The truth is, Louisiana taxpayers' portion of state spending actually increased by about $1 billion since Jindal took office. That increase does not reflect a tax hike, but rather increased tax collections because of expanded economic activity. Generally, increased tax collections are a good thing, because costs always rise over time. But the bottom line is that Bobby Jindal did not cut the state budget.
Elsewhere in the mystical realm of state spending, Jindal likes to trumpet his "hiring freezes." That, too, is an illusion. Even his most ardent advocate in the media, The Times-Picayune, recently pointed out that the number of state employees increased during Jindal's first year in office by about 3,200 (nearly 3 percent). Moreover, all of that increase (and more) came among workers earning more than $40,000 a year.
In fact, the governor pays his top aides like Wall Street bankers. "In the elite category of state workers with salaries of more than $100,000, the state's payroll grew by $96 million in one year," wrote the T-P's Robert Travis Scott. "That amounts to about one-fourth of this year's state budget shortfall."
As you read this, public universities across Louisiana are anguishing over the prospect of massive budget cuts. But, as was the case with "ethics reform," the governor's budgetary "reforms" have not affected his immediate circle of friends.
On the tax side of the equation, Jindal can legitimately say that he cut business taxes — a trend that actually began under his predecessor, Kathleen Blanco. But he also likes to pat himself on the back for cutting personal income taxes, which is another masquerade. Last spring, while the governor officially sat on his hands during the early stages of the legislative debate over cutting the so-called Stelly income tax brackets, his aides and legislative allies did all they could to kill the tax reduction. Only after it became obvious that an income tax cut was going to pass — with or without his support — did Jindal rush to the front of the parade and claim credit for the idea.
I say all this not to pick on Jindal, but rather to stand up for the truth. Another truth is that Jindal is positioning himself to run for president one day. His speech on Tuesday night will mark his national political debut. He will be analyzed, criticized and measured against other GOP "rising stars."
That strikes some as good for Louisiana, but remember: Jindal's topic on Tuesday will be President Obama's Stimulus Plan. Last week, he hinted that he might not accept all of Louisiana's share of that plan. That will make him look good to right-wingers across the country, but will it be good for Louisiana?
Here's another truth: While Jindal can officially reject a portion of the stimulus aid, the state Legislature can legally accept all of it. That will allow Jindal to stage his grandest bal masque of all: He can criticize the plan and even "reject" part of it — and then spend all of it after lawmakers accept it for him.
Happy Mardi Gras, Governor.