Gov. Bobby Jindal has signed his last state budget and issued his final vetoes. His stops back home in Baton Rouge have become even rarer and briefer now that his presidential campaign is, at long last, official. He won’t move his family out of the Governor’s Mansion until January, but as far as state government goes, the Jindal era is basically over.
That’s all true now, but it wasn’t the case as recently as this year’s legislative session, when Jindal’s national campaign dictated how the quest to fill a $1.6 billion budget hole went down. You wouldn’t know it, though, from this year’s legislative report card from the state’s powerful business lobby, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
That LABI gave 61 percent of House members and 77 percent of senators failing grades isn’t really a surprise; throughout the session, the group pushed back hard against the rollback of once free-flowing business tax breaks.
The bizarre part is that the report puts all the blame on the Legislature, without even mentioning the hoops lawmakers had to jump through to craft a budget that Jindal would sign. Nor does it mention Jindal’s SAVE act, the intentionally confusing higher ed fee and tax credit that enabled him to adopt some of the increases in question and still claim that he hadn’t raised taxes. In fact, Jindal doesn’t come up in the 55-page document at all.
It’s not like they don’t know his name or what he’s up to. LABI’S president, Stephen Waguespack, previously served as a top gubernatorial aide and attended the governor’s presidential kickoff last month.
Camille Conaway, LABI’s vice president for policy and research, said the report focused exclusively on lawmakers because it’s a legislative scorecard, and that the organization generally doesn’t grade governors. She also insisted that they had plenty of options to avert huge cuts to higher education and health care that would not have been “harmful to the private sector” even within Jindal’s swim lanes, such as looking at statutory dedications and further reducing spending.
Still, it’s hard to argue that the session wasn’t severely constricted by Jindal’s short-term considerations, dictated in some instances by what fit his definition of “corporate welfare,” and in other cases by how much cash the state could generate, and how quickly. Any actual cost-benefit analysis will have to wait until the next governor takes office, and it remains to be seen whether LABI will be willing to support a better-thought-out plan that results in some reduction in incentives to some industries.
In the meantime, the idea that the lobbying group’s regional affiliates could base their endorsements on this year’s votes seems out of whack, particularly when you dig into the report’s details.
The many lawmakers who received F grades include some of the Legislature’s true business stalwarts. Take Sen. Jack Donahue, of Mandeville, a chamber-of-commerce-minded Republican who chairs the Senate Finance committee. Donahue voted regularly with LABI during the first three years of his term and earned an 88 percent out of 100 cumulative rating. This year, he pushed one of LABI’s major priorities, a bill to try to bring the cost of the popular TOPS tuition program under control. Yet because he supported the tax credit rollbacks, he scored just 39 percent in 2015.
On the flip side, consider the case of Rep. Sam Jones, of Franklin, the only Democrat to land on LABI’S 2015 MVP list. He earned a 91 percent rating and an A grade this year, a considerable improvement from his 63 percent cumulative score for the prior three years, largely because he voted against the tax rollbacks LABI identified as key votes. Yet Jones also sponsored a bill that LABI strongly opposed, a modest cost-of-living increase for state retirees.
Donahue’s LABI-friendly bill and Jones’ LABI-opposed one wound up being moot, by the way, because Jindal vetoed both of them.
One lawmaker I spoke to recently suggested that the LABI ratings are less a guide for this year’s elections than a warning to lawmakers who return in 2016, when the real work on the tax code will happen. Conaway agreed that the idea was more to send a message than to create a target list. She said LABI is hoping that 2015 was a “temporary setback” and that the group looks forward to working with these legislators in the future.
Still, this was a truly weird session, and lots of legislators — including those who’d been complicit in creating the budget mess — tried to make the best of an already bad situation made far more difficult by the governor’s national ambitions. It’s hard to tell the full story without at least acknowledging that.