While some denigrate outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure in office, a review of his record reveals many more policy successes than misses.
From the start, Jindal faced the twin revenue challenges of the disaster recovery-stimulated false economy deflating and, a year later, of Democrats taking control in Washington. Those Washington policies led to continuing economic malaise that saps state revenue. As a result, this fiscal year’s budget calls for a billion fewer state dollars spent than in fiscal year 2009.
Some of the reduction came from income tax cuts in that first fiscal year that Jindal supported reluctantly. However, those tax cuts also helped stimulate the state’s economy. So, despite the poor economic management of President Barack Obama, Louisiana’s private sector grew after the state tax cuts at a rate faster than the rest of the country’s and inflation. Louisiana also added at a greater rate more private-sector jobs than the country as a whole, even accounting for the oil bust of the past year.
Contrary to manufactured legend, as revenue tightened, Jindal spent more on the two most vulnerable areas in the budget. Spending on health care and higher education combined went up $1 billion, although with the former, increased federal dollars helped. Higher education also benefited from higher tuition and fees. Those increases brought Louisiana from among the lowest amounts charged to students among the states to a little below the middle.
Jindal also embarked on a number of efficiency measures that went largely unnoticed. By transferring Medicaid from a fee-for-service to a managed capitation system, privatizing operation of most state-owned hospitals and matching services to needs, the governor saved Louisiana several hundred million dollars a year in health care costs, which constitute 40 percent of all state spending. Also, on most indicators, the quality of health care has improved as a result.
Besides the realm of fiscal policy, Jindal also excelled in a number of other areas. He made Louisiana a leader in school choice and introduced education accountability measures that advanced children’s interests instead of special interests. He spurred ethics reforms to increase accountability of public servants. He leveraged oil spill recovery dollars to put coastal restoration efforts years ahead of schedule.
But Jindal missed some opportunities as well. Ethics reforms remained incomplete without tighter restrictions on use of campaign monies. The state retained ownership of most of its hospitals instead of selling them and reaping even greater operational efficiencies. Accountability for civil servants barely improved, while their total compensation continued above that of private-sector workers doing similar tasks. Jindal proved unable to rein in overgenerous state retirement systems, the liabilities of which threaten future budgets. Jindal also failed to reform a convoluted tax system that discourages growth.
Jindal made other missteps. State government sometimes played venture capitalist for a few lucky enterprises in the name of job creation. Jindal occasionally let himself become distracted from the bigger picture, such as with his consuming crusade against Common Core. And, although Jindal lowered the per capita number of state employees to a level comparable with other states, total spending including federal grants (minus those for hurricane recovery) climbed more than the inflation rate in his eight years.
Still, Jindal proved himself the first governor in Louisiana’s history to try to pull out the roots of its self-handicapping populism and to right-size government, rejecting the notion that government primarily exists to take from some to give to others. Jindal’s successor, John Bel Edwards, campaigned on the kind of populist agenda that in the past made the state a laughingstock. Although Jindal couldn’t fully quash Louisiana’s populist impulse, he deserves our thanks for starting us on the path to beneficial change.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political of political science at LSU Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (http://www.between-lines.com) and, when the Louisiana Legislature is in session, another about legislation (http://www.laleglog.com). Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.