The strategy for Gov. Bobby Jindal’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is partly based on a “tell them what you’ve done” approach. But touting his achievements back home could get him into muddy water quickly if anyone decides to look too deeply at the list.
Campaign aides made it clear as Jindal launched his campaign that they intend to highlight the governor’s leadership of Louisiana in his White House bid.
“This is not a guy who needs on-the-job training,” Jindal’s chief strategist Curt Anderson said in a messaging preview.
Indeed, Jindal has won a string of policy victories during his two terms as governor, making decisions that have sharply changed the face of state government, education and health care.
But in many instances, the impact of those changes remains uncertain or the story Jindal and his handlers tell about those changes skip a few critical points.
Few would disagree that Jindal’s overhaul of worker training programs and his dogged pursuit of business projects have brought new jobs to Louisiana. However, the state’s unemployment rate remains the nation’s sixth-highest, undercutting part of the narrative.
And the governor’s management of the state’s finances has produced dismal results, with repeated budget shortfalls that stretch on the horizon long after he’s gone.
One of Jindal’s regular talking points is about the size of Louisiana’s government.
“We did what they said could not be done — we shrank our government,” he said in his campaign kickoff speech Wednesday in Kenner. He added: “It was not easy. The big government crowd fought us every step of the way.”
He’s reduced the footprint of government, for certain. State government has 30,000 fewer workers, the lowest level in decades.
Stories of Jindal “cutting” the state budget by 26 percent are exaggerated, however.
Much of the multibillion-dollar drop in the state budget that the governor and his aides cite is tied to the loss of federal hurricane recovery dollars that artificially boosted state spending for a short period after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Jindal’s been less willing to do the difficult work of matching state government spending to annual income.
As he sought to protect his record against tax increases, Jindal — aided by lawmakers who agreed to the shell games — raided trust funds and savings accounts, sold state property and gave widespread amnesty to delinquent taxpayers to drum up short-term cash for the state budget.
He patched his way through year after year, rather than find permanent sources of new revenue for the state or cut the size of government to match the state’s revenue. That created perpetual cycles of budget troubles as the one-time dollars fell away and needed replacing to continue paying for services.
The next governor, to be elected this fall, will inherit a financial mess for which Jindal shares much of the credit.
Jindal’s leadership of Louisiana may be most noticeable in education and health care.
He’s pushed for expanded school choice across the state, boosting the number of charter schools and creating a statewide voucher program that allows students from low- to moderate-income families to use state tax dollars to go to private schools.
On health care, Jindal has turned over management of the state’s charity hospital system to private operators, transforming a Huey Long-era creation unique to Louisiana.
In many areas, uninsured patients report better access to specialty health care, shorter wait times and other improvements. But Louisiana is paying more for the privatized hospital system than it paid when LSU ran the facilities, and hospital managers have told lawmakers they’ll be seeking further increases year after year.
Any criticism of Jindal’s time in office — or talk of the governor’s dismal approval ratings — is discarded by campaign leaders as sour grapes by entrenched bureaucracies.
“He didn’t run to be coronated most popular politician in the history of Louisiana. He ran to make a difference in the state,” Anderson said. “When you do that, you tick people off.”
Anderson added: “The results for the people of Louisiana, we would say, are superior.”
That’s a rosy story for a campaign, with some gaps.
Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.