Think Elections Don’t Matter? Ask Anyone in Jindal’s Louisiana

Next time you think elections don’t matter, talk to someone from Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana. (As a matter of fact, check in with Brownback’s Kansas, Walker’s Wisconsin, Christie’s New Jersey while you’re at it). Baton Rouge is not exactly Shangri-La these days, as Governor Bobby Jindal has all but destroyed the economy, the educational system, including the only teaching Hospital (LSU-Shreveport), and what was left of the environment of Louisiana.

Alfred E. Jindal

Alfred E. Jindal

Even the state bird, the Pelican, is dying off under the short-sighted, Laffer Curve, insanity voodoo economics of the Republican Party and its total disregard for the environment.

Government officials are desperately trying to plug a $1.6 billion budget shortfall. But even by that huge measure for a state the size of Louisiana, Wednesday, April 22, was particularly tense.

In the stately capitol that Huey Long built, the Senate Finance Committee was wrestling with a complex cost-cutting scheme to repeal an inventory tax that businesses pay to local governments and that the state rebates to the businesses, while promising to [impossibly] make frazzled local leaders whole.

Simultaneously, Louisiana State University President and Chancellor F. King Alexander were reporting that the state’s flagship university, which would probably lose 80 percent of state funding after years of already deep cuts, was feverishly attempting to assemble a plan for a worst-case scenario for financial necessity—essentially, the academic equivalent of bankruptcy for Louisiana State University.

Let me be specific…1,433 faculty and staff jobs eliminated; 1,572 courses cut; 28 academic programs shut down across campuses; and 6 institutions declaring some form of financial emergency. Documents obtained by the Times-Picayune say 27 percent of faculty positions at the main campus in Baton Rouge would have to be cut. Thousands of students, in debt in order to attend and graduate from LSU, will be left hanging with their majors no longer obtainable due to laid off professors and discontinued programs. The Engineering, Business, Accounting, and Architectural programs will be unaccredited.

In the midst of all this chaos, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, whose policies and priorities are the sole reason for the state’s fiscal mess, was preening for cameras to facilitate his presumed run for the 2016 presidential candidacy:

“Help wish my friends Willie, Phil and Si a happy birthday,” said the tweet, which was accompanied by a photo of Willie Robertson, whose backwoods family is highlighted on the ridiculous reality TV show Duck Dynasty. It then directed readers to the website for the American Future Project, a 527 advocacy group that Jindal has set up in advance of his anticipated presidential run.

If the tweet suggests a striking disconnect from the dire budget situation that’s unfolding on his watch, well, that’s exactly how it is these days.

Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar, has always harbored grander ambitions, and voters generally have given him a wide berth.

That was then….this is now.

These days Jindal’s focus on the upcoming presidential primaries has taken a toll fiscally, and to his popularity in down home Louisiana. Though he was popular enough to avoid a reelection fight in 2011, by 2015 his approval rating had sunk to a paltry 27 percent, (presumably the same 27 percent who view Duck Dynasty as a positive image for Louisiana); a friendly survey by his own consulting firm fixed the number at a generous 46 percent, hardly a decisive vote of confidence.

It’s not just his frequent trips to places like Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington that have angered his constituents and enraged the general population. (He spent over half the year out of state in 2014, according to The Advocate newspaper.) Nor is it only his peculiar, downright embarrassing forays into international and national affairs, from the tall tales in London about Muslim no-go zones, to his op-ed in The New York Times accusing companies that oppose religious freedom laws [inspired by the spread of gay marriage] of forming an ungodly alliance with the “radical liberals.” It’s not even his need to laze around in the Robertsons’ reflected glory.

More than any of that, his constituents are frustrated that their governor can’t be bothered to do his damn job—and when he does, that his actions are often so transparently designed to build a national profile rather than meet Louisiana’s needs (can you say Sarah Palin?).

It’s clear in his refusal to take federal money to expand Medicaid—which would mean <gasp>acknowledging that there are benefits to Obama’s health care law. But it is exponentially more obvious, and more damaging, in Jindal’s lack of competency, much less compassion, in Louisiana’s fiscal affairs.

Jindal casually and without proof, tries to blame the current budget shortfall on the drop in oil prices. But the larger issue, and reason, has been his determination to maintain a “pure” record on taxes.

It was only after lawmakers seemed like they might eliminate the income tax entirely that he soon was boasting that he’d signed the biggest tax cut in state history.

The first real glimpse of the destruction Bobby Jindal and his Republican, Austerity, voodoo, short-sighted, bankrupting-the-flagship university-and the state itself, economics future would hold came in 2011 when Jindal fought tooth and nail against extending a temporary 4 cent levy on the state’s cigarette tax—at 36 cents, including the levy, the third lowest in the nation. His reasoning? If the tax rate is scheduled to automatically drop and the state acts to prevent that from happening, it amounts to an effective tax increase. And this is a Rhodes Scholar? Not in Economics!

The stance left his constituents shocked, but impressed  little Grover Norquist ofAmericans for Tax Reform (ATR), who would endorse Jindal as Mitt Romney’s running mate the following year.

Even Republicans were dumbfounded as opposed to just dumb.

Norquist, and his obvious purse-strings of the ATR, has magnitudes more influence over Jindal than the citizens of Louisiana. The ATR’s rigid rules for what constitutes a tax increase line up perfectly with Jindal’s. In practice, that means the governor has insisted that the budget be balanced without tax increases, despite the prospect of devastating cuts to higher education and health care, the two main areas that don’t enjoy constitutional or statutory protection.

And it means some revenue-enhancing ideas the Republican-dominated legislature might support, specifically a reexamination of giveaways to specific industries, are off-limits—because eliminating a tax exemption without an offset that reduces another tax or cuts spending, according to ATR, is raising a tax.

That’s how the inventory tax wound up in Jindal’s crosshairs, despite the fact that eliminating the rebate but not the underlying tax would destroy businesses, and getting rid of the tax would devastate some parishes (that’s Louisiana for county

Even Republicans who belong to an informal group dubbed the “fiscal hawks” ( an astoundingly absurd misnomer) have been sharply critical of Jindal’s reliance over the years on one-time money transfers and accounting gimmicks to balance the budget without making even deeper cuts.

Everything’s hitting the fan is now, finally, because there’s nothing left to cut. Gone are $800 million from the Medicaid Trust Fund for the Elderly and $450 million for providing development incentives. Gone is the rainy day fund that’s dropped from $730 million to $460 million on during his first term.

Republicans like state Representative Jay Morris, who, after hearing Jindal’s vow to veto any measure that didn’t have Norquist’s blessing, stated the approach was “certifiably insane.” Republican State Senator Jack Donahue, who chairs Louisiana’s Finance Committee and who passed a bill last year seeking to determine how much the state spends on tax exemptions, watched helplessly and distraught as Jindal vetoed it.

Republicans running to replace Jindal in this fall’s election tell the tale of the tape. All three—Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, U.S. Senator David Vitter and Public Service Commissioner (and former Jindal aide) Scott Angelle—say they will look for a way to accept the Medicaid money and take an open-minded approach to examining tax exemptions….drawing the ire of Jindal publicly….but ignored by all three.

“What this state needs right now is a leader solely focused on Louisiana,” Dardenne said in a recent speech. And in a clear swipe at Norquist, he added that, “I represent the people of Louisiana; I don’t represent someone who lives in D.C.”

And Vitter said he’d take a good, hard look at tax incentives and other giveaways, even if it means raising revenue.

“Governor Jindal should’ve been doing this all along, and he damn sure should be doing it now,” he pointedly said.

I double-dog-dare someone to take a poll in Louisiana and see what they think of the Activist, Uber-Conservative, (Un)Supreme Court’s decision on Citizen’s United.

Harvey A. Gold