“The reality is I’m not an evolutionary biologist,” Gov. Bobby Jindal told a gaggle of Washington reporters earlier this month when they tried to pin the governor down on whether he believes the theory of evolution explains the development of life on Earth.
And it’s true. He’s not, although as an Ivy League biology major who once dreamed of attending medical school, he’s better qualified than your everyday politician to offer an opinion.
It wasn’t a random question, of course. Ever since Jindal signed the infamous Louisiana Science Education Act during his first term, he’s been dodging queries over how someone like him can support a measure that allows schools to introduce creationism into the science curriculum when the scientific community is united in vocal opposition.
But fine, let’s hold Jindal to his own standard. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that he shouldn’t be expected to fully understand subject matters outside his sphere of expertise.
Let’s even ignore the fact that he claims to do so all the time as he travels the country promoting his possible presidential bid — that he weighs in on energy and environmental matters even though he’s not an engineer, that he invokes the specter of a war on religion even though he’s not a theologian, that he harshly critiques President Barack Obama’s foreign policy moves despite the fact that he’s no diplomat.
Let’s talk about what’s going on in the areas where he does claim to be an authority.
Jindal may not be a lot of things, but he is a health care policy expert, so it’s hard to argue that he shouldn’t be judged on what’s happening in that sizable corner of state government. And here, things aren’t pretty.
The feds rejected Jindal’s initial plan to privatize most of the LSU hospital system, leaving financing in question even though the transition is already well underway.
State employees and retirees are howling over changes to health plans offered through the Office of Group Benefits, and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said last week that the administration didn’t follow the prescribed legal procedures before making the changes.
Jindal’s staunch refusal to accept the Affordable Care Act’s federal Medicaid expansion is leaving hundreds of thousands of his constituents without insurance and putting enormous pressure on hospitals that still need to provide uncompensated care, often in expensive emergency room settings.
And of course, his former secretary of health and hospitals — a job that Jindal knows inside out, given that he once held it — is now being prosecuted by Caldwell’s office. Bruce Greenstein was charged last week with nine counts of perjury for allegedly lying to lawmakers and grand jurors about contacts with his former employer CNSI, a company that just happened to win a nearly $200 million contract to process Medicaid claims after the rules were rewritten to make the firm eligible. Greenstein denied collusion and insisted he’d had minimal contact, but phone and text logs hint at a distinct coziness. And the fact that the price tag went up by $9 million after the contract was awarded is unlikely to calm suspicions.
Sure, Jindal fired Greenstein and canceled the contract when a federal subpoena arrived last year, but in this case, he’s not going to be able to brush past questions so easily.
Not only did Greenstein’s alleged misdeeds happen on Jindal’s watch and his old turf. They also call into question the administration’s commitment to, and mastery of, another professed priority: ethics.
Back when Jindal won his first term in 2007, that’s about all he talked about. He promised to create a “gold standard” and used his post-election honeymoon to muscle through a legislative package that increased disclosure, tightened lobbying rules and revamped enforcement.
The changes weren’t an end in themselves, supposedly. The ultimate aim, Jindal always said, was to send a message to companies looking to do business in Louisiana that they’d get a fair shake. That’s a particularly important goal for an administration so bent on privatization.
But what good are new rules if things like this still happen? What sort of executives are going to look at the state and see a level playing field?
And just how is Jindal going to answer the inevitable questions the health care mess raises about his stewardship, if he can’t just plead ignorance?