When people talk about former Gov. Bobby Jindal's role in creating the state's long-running fiscal crisis — and while he's been out of office for two years, they still often do — the conversation tends to focus on the damage caused by his use of one-time revenue for recurring expenses, his trust fund raids, and his visceral aversion to any perfectly reasonable measure that someone might cast as a tax hike.
Yet every now and then, my mind wanders back to something he got right. Or tried to for a brief time, anyway.
The few Republican primary voters who listened to Jindal during his brief presidential campaign probably heard him brag about signing the biggest tax cut in Louisiana history.
What they didn't hear was a key element of the back story: That reversing the Stelly Plan's income tax increases, which voters had adopted in 2002 as part of swap to eliminate state sales taxes on vital needs such as food and to put state revenue on a more reliable footing, wasn't Jindal's initiative. In fact, at the time, he didn't seem to think it was a good idea.
Jindal's mentor, former Gov. Mike Foster, had championed the Stelly Plan, and when Jindal ran for the office himself in 2007, he mostly sidestepped questions over whether he wanted to make it go away. On that he stood out from Republican legislative candidates that year, many of whom ran on a platform of rolling back the income tax increases.
Although it seemed like a reach at the time, some of them even tried to make good on their promises during Jindal's first year in office in 2008, though the governor's troops voiced concern over cutting $300 million in recurring revenue without one-for-one spending cuts and tried to kill the matter in committee.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, events conspired to make the rollback of the Stelly not only less farfetched but the more cautious option on the table.
First, opponents of undoing the Stelly increases proposed changing the measure to a repeal of all income taxes. The idea was a poison pill aimed at killing the bill, but to their surprise, it passed out of the Senate and started to take on a life of its own.
All this happened as state coffers were swelling with hurricane recovery money, as oil prices soared and as talk radio hosts engineered a grassroots uprising in support of ending the tax entirely. Added to the mix was a well-timed Revenue Estimating Conference projection. Suddenly the conservative dream of ending the state income tax appeared not only within reach, but potentially unstoppable, even though any sober-minded observer had to know that the flush times wouldn't last forever.
So Jindal did what anyone in his position would do: He cut a deal to adopt the bad option in order to avert a worse one for the state's bottom line, then declared victory.
This was all before the price of oil crashed, and that hurricane money dried up. It was before Jindal spent the latter part of his tenure resorting to all sorts of gimmicks to keep government afloat, before he adopted the mindset that even a minor tax renewal amounted to an intolerable increase. It was before he so clearly put his own political ambitions ahead of his duties to his constituents. Before he not only adopted the narrative that he was a master tax-cutter, but made it central to his political identity.
To be honest, Jindal probably couldn't have stopped the Stelly repeal even if he'd tried harder. It wasn't just archconservatives who caught the fever; even a freshman House Democrat named John Bel Edwards, who would make Jindal's fiscal irresponsibility a centerpiece of his own winning gubernatorial campaign in 2015, voted yes. In fact, we probably owe Jindal some thanks for keeping the Legislature from behaving even more irresponsibly, from digging an even deeper hole than it faces now.
Still, it was kind of sad at the time to watch him push his better instincts to the side and take a victory lap.
But not nearly so sad as it's been to watch government struggle to provide basic services ever since.
Correction: Friday's column described current TOPS awards as covering full tuition. They are pegged to tuition charged for the 2016-2017 academic year.