Bobby Jindal’s final legislative session opening speech told us everything we need to know about where the governor’s mind is these days. Or it would have, if we didn’t know already.
The address in the House chamber wasn’t Jindal’s most dramatic. That came two years ago, when he acknowledged the fury among lawmakers over his plan to eliminate income taxes and drastically raise sales taxes, and announced that he’d park the proposal. It was a pivotal moment, the first time legislators really pushed back against a Jindal initiative clearly aimed at bolstering his own national ambitions rather than addressing the state’s needs.
But Monday’s speech was surely Jindal’s most transparent. There’s no longer any pretense that this is about Louisiana or that the governor was even speaking to his own constituents. He knew it, and the legislators who spent most of 20-odd minutes sitting on their hands knew it.
Before recognizing his family — the one segment of the speech that evoked more than a lukewarm response — Jindal outlined his top three priorities for a session that will necessarily be dominated by filling a $1.6 billion budget hole.
The first centered on the financial situation but only to a point.
Venting an apparently newly discovered disgust over “corporate welfare” — a popular target of tea party voters nationwide, it just so happens — Jindal singled out policies that allow some businesses to collect government checks even though they pay no taxes.
“Our businesses are a great asset,” Jindal said. “But we cannot stand idly by while companies pay zero in state taxes and then continue getting free taxpayer money from the government on top of it.”
He’s absolutely right about that, of course, and it would have been nice to consider this problem earlier in his tenure, when the state did in fact stand idly by while money flew out the door. Instead, Jindal resisted legislative efforts to even tally up the cost of tax giveaways like the ones he described Monday, let alone do something about them.
But the bigger problem is that he left so much off the table. As Jindal has made clear over and over again, he won’t support anything that the powerful Washington interest group Americans for Tax Reform considers a tax increase without a corresponding reduction. That includes not just potentially palatable tax hikes on cigarettes but also reductions to other tax breaks that most objective observers would categorize as corporate welfare.
Of this session’s many bills — including a number filed by fellow fiscal conservatives — that seek to rethink a wide range of giveaways, Jindal included just two in his announced legislative package: House Bill 366 by state Rep. Bryan Adams and Senate Bill 91 by state Sen. Robert Adley. Both aim to make credits in excess of taxes paid non-refundable but stop there. Both include Jindal’s proposal to eliminate rebates on inventory taxes that companies pay to parishes, an idea that’s already run into staunch resistance from both businesses and localities. Neither addresses whether other tax breaks, including the much-debated film credit program, are overly generous.
As for Jindal’s other two stated priorities, well, they have “national campaign” written all over them. Jindal again vowed to uproot the Common Core education standards that he once helped plant, and he again stated his case in the most simplistic, ideological terms possible. Forget whether schools test too much or whether the new teaching methods are appropriate. Jindal built his entire argument around the fact that the federal government links funding to adoption at the state level of ambitious standards like Common Core, which is apparently reason enough to shelve the whole, yearslong drive and start over.
Same with Jindal’s third priority, a so-called religious freedom bill by state Rep. Mike Johnson, which fits right in with a line Jindal’s been pushing in his travels across the country. More on this in a future column, but for now, suffice it to say that not many lawmakers seem eager to follow in the footsteps of Indiana and Arkansas and risk getting labeled supportive of discrimination against gay and lesbian people. Nor do they appear too keen on the distraction this fight will create, when many of them would prefer to focus on the dire budget situation. Certainly, many of them would prefer not to have to take a vote on such a divisive issue right before they stand for re-election this fall.
Sure, Jindal seems to earn the occasional ovation when he speaks to highly partisan groups out of state. But other than some applause from Common Core foes, who until now have found themselves outnumbered, Louisiana lawmakers greeted most of Monday’s speech with utter silence.
And that, I’d argue, said it all.