In perhaps his last official act as governor, Bobby Jindal this week granted clemency to 21 convicted criminals, from low-level drug offenders to a murderer who’d turned his life around to such an extent that Jindal trusted him to care for his three children.
While he was at it, Jindal may as well have officially forgiven a 22nd person: himself.
This is not to say that Jindal has ever been accused of a crime, or that he should have been. But from the way he’s spinning the story of his time in office, it’s clear that the governor is ready, even eager, to let himself off the hook for leaving a nearly $2 billion bill on successor John Bel Edwards’ desk, for failing to address deep structural budget issues, and for making decisions designed to bolster his doomed presidential campaign rather than focusing on what was best for his constituents.
Nor is it to say that Jindal’s fiscal management is the only thing that will determine his legacy. Jindal did initiate some major changes that will play out over time, including expanded school choice for K-12 students, a reduction in teacher tenure protection, and the privatization of the Charity hospital system. So when he says he was elected to do big things and he did them, he’s got a point.
Jindal also oversaw some $60 billion in investment in major private sector economic projects.
How much of that is due to the state’s abundance of natural resources and the low cost of natural gas, versus Jindal’s economic development policies, is also up for debate. So, too, is the wisdom in granting huge tax exemptions in order to attract these projects, even as the state’s bottom line withered.
Still, what’s striking about Jindal’s frantic attempt to get in the last word is his nonchalant attitude toward the problem that dominated the campaign to replace him and will consume Edwards and the new Legislature for the foreseeable future: just how to right the state’s budget.
Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, the incoming Democratic administration’s Commissioner of Administration, put the blame squarely on Jindal for using one-time money to pay for recurring expenses and applying other smoke-and-mirror techniques to create the appearance of fiscal health.
“The economists tell us our budget is set up to spend money we don’t have,” Dardenne said while announcing that the news was even worse than the Edwards camp had thought.
But to hear Jindal tell it, the $1.9 billion budget hole is not a problem at all.
He routinely notes that all his budgets were balanced, and indeed, they were on paper, as they’re required by law to be. The same goes for the shortfall in state funding for basic needs, because smaller government, in his view, is simply, inherently better.
He admits that structural budget reform was in order, but puts the fault for failing to pursue it squarely on the Legislature. Jindal, though, never chose to tackle the problem.
The one big change he proposed relied on eliminating state income tax, an idea that was endorsed by Grover Norquist’s national group, Americans for Tax Reform, but almost nobody who lives in the state, and that died on arrival. Other than that, Jindal headed off efforts to reconsider tax exemptions, even when the ideas came from his Republican allies.
Jindal won’t even take responsibility for irksome staff and travel cost of protecting him during all those months when he was on the road campaigning for president. He simply insists that having Louisiana taxpayers foot the bill is in accord with State Police policies.
The one policy for which he is quick to take credit, ironically, is one he initially resisted. Early in his tenure, Jindal signed off on a rollback of the Stelly income tax increases that were initially adopted along with a cut in sales taxes. But he did so only after lawmakers threatened to eliminate the income tax entirely, an idea that Jindal had not yet espoused. So when he boasts about signing the largest tax cut in state history, remember that he was once among those who worried that it could contribute to just the sort of shortfall we have today.
The problems Jindal’s leaving behind won’t be permanent, however, if only because they can’t be. But getting to a solution will take a whole lot of hard work and inflict much pain, both in terms of cuts and inevitable tax increases.
So good for Jindal, for forgiving himself. The rest of the state may need a little more time.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.