Gov. Bobby Jindal’s final State of the State speech won mixed reviews Monday, focusing largely on the ongoing budget crisis, Jindal’s opposition to Common Core and his support for a proposed “religious freedom” bill.
The 21-minute speech, which will be Jindal’s last time marking the start of the legislative session, was, at times, self-deprecating and sentimental.
“I’m looking forward to having a strong final session,” he said enthusiastically.
But the speech earned only tepid response from legislators who gathered in the House chamber to hear him, and drew infrequent interaction and applause — save for standing ovations for Jindal’s family and loud laughter that followed a joke about people looking forward to Jindal’s final address.
“I guess it was a nice farewell,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. “I would have liked to have heard more specifics on how to get through the budget process.”
At least one Democrat — state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, of New Orleans — showed frustration. Peterson chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party.
“She walked out because we’ve heard that speech from him before,” Louisiana Democrats spokesman Beau Tidwell said in a statement to The Advocate. “No ideas for Louisiana and no clue. Between his Iowa campaign and his budget nightmare, he walked out on the state and on the families of Louisiana a long time ago.”
Jindal, who has been flirting with a run for the Republican nomination for president in 2016 for several months, frequently addressed his critics in the speech, noting that he hasn’t “done everything perfectly” during his nearly eight years in office.
“In politics, everyone gets dug into a corner to the point where they pretend that they are always completely right and their opponents are always completely wrong, and that’s a mistake,” Jindal said.
Jindal ended his speech with an off-the-cuff ode to his family, but he didn’t directly address his possible presidential ambitions. Jindal has said he won’t announce his 2016 intentions until the legislative session ends in June.
Jindal’s speech featured many of his most frequent talking points.
Without providing new ideas for shoring up the state budget to prevent deep cuts for colleges and universities, Jindal said he has “the utmost confidence that we are going to come together, make smart reductions to the size of government where we can and yet again have another balanced budget that doesn’t raise taxes.”
He described his own spending plan as targeting a “system of corporate welfare” to protect funding for higher education and health care. His plan relies on rolling back tax credits to free up more money for higher education and health care. Some in the business community have balked at the proposal, and lawmakers have been looking for alternatives. The state faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, which could threaten funding for colleges and universities by as much as 80 percent.
“I was looking for more of a plan to deal with the fiscal crisis in the state. Certainly, I didn’t hear that,” said state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa. “I think the people of the state want the governor to put forth a plan that’s reasonable and sets the foundation for the future.”
Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, said he would like to see the governor engaged in negotiations in the coming weeks.
“I hope he’s involved,” he said. “If he really wants some of these things, I’d like to see him come to committee a couple of times — even if he doesn’t take questions.”
Republican State Sen. Dan Claitor, of Baton Rouge, said Jindal was right that solving the state’s budget crisis is the No. 1 priority this session.
“For the rest of the governor’s speech beyond the budget ... I was a little surprised that he would make another issue as part of the speech,” Claitor said.
Jindal spent the rest of his speech largely highlighting his conservative positions on two national headline-grabbing issues: Common Core and “religious liberty.”
He said he “absolutely intend(s) to fight for the passage” of a proposed bill that has been linked to controversial “religious freedom” measures in Indiana and Arkansas that sparked fears that they encouraged discrimination against gay people.
State Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, has said his “Marriage and Conscience Act,” House Bill 707, would only prevent the state from retaliating against business owners over their beliefs on same-sex marriage — a point Jindal argued during Monday’s speech.
“All this bill does is provide necessary protections for individuals to prevent adverse treatment from the state based on religious beliefs regarding marriage. This legislation does not allow a restaurant or industry to refuse service to a gay or lesbian person,” Jindal said, drawing little-to-no reaction from the audience.
On Common Core, which Jindal has been a frequent critic, he said high standards are needed but without the federal government’s involvement.
“I care deeply about high, rigorous standards ... They were embedded in me at an early age,” Jindal said. “My father, who is here today, was not happy with straight As. If my brother or I got a 95 percent, he wanted to know what happened on the other 5 percent.”
Jindal’s mother was not in attendance because she is recovering from surgery related to cancer. Jindal said she was watching the speech — the first she’s missed seeing in person during his tenure — from home.
His three children all attended for the first time. First lady Supriya Jindal and her parents also attended.
Tyler Bridges, Marsha Shuler and Will Sentell, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .