WASHINGTON — Gov. Bobby Jindal wasted little time in declaring victory after the Louisiana Legislature’s session this month, taking credit for approval of a state budget that was balanced without tax increases.
But Jindal’s boast was greeted with heaps of scorn — from within the state and across the country. As an all-but-announced candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination who is expected to make it official Wednesday, he attracts more media attention than, say, the governor of Mississippi.
It is Jindal’s White House quest that, his detractors claim, explains a fiscal policy they characterize with a thesaurus’ worth of invective — and in particular, his desire to remain on the good side of Grover Norquist.
Norquist wields enormous influence in conservative politics thanks to “the pledge”: a promise from elected officials to steadfastly oppose tax increases. Almost all Republican contenders for 2016 have signed the pledge, as has Jindal. Despite scolding Jindal in 2007 for violating the pledge while a congressman, Norquist is a fan, boosting him in 2012 for the No. 2 spot on the Republican national ticket.
Jindal and the Legislature faced one overriding problem in the just-ended session: a projected budget shortfall of $1.6 billion for the 2015-16 fiscal year. They chose a straightforward solution for closing more than half that gap: raising taxes, through scaling back business tax breaks and credits — some of which doesn’t count in Norquist’s reckoning — but also through less ambiguous means, such as a hike of 50 cents per pack in the tax on cigarettes to bring in more than $100 million.
Or maybe it wasn’t so straightforward.
The Norquist rules do allow clear-cut tax increases as long as they are offset by equal or larger tax reductions. For example, Jindal could have approved a $1 billion increase in sales taxes along with $1 billion in income-tax credits and still be right with Norquist.
So Jindal pushed through a tax credit of about $1,500 for each of the 220,000 students enrolled at state colleges and universities — except they wouldn’t get any of the money, because it was coupled with an equal increase in student fees, which the state wouldn’t collect because of the credit. Somehow, per Norquist, that provided $350 million in paper offsets for actual tax hikes.
Democrats, predictably, denounced the scheme, with some legislators calling it “despicable, unethical and insane,” “a complete lie, a fraud,” “pure fiction,” “a gimmick,” “a complete farce” and “a shell game.” In-state editorial writers and commentators favored “Orwellian,” “fraudulent,” a “budgetary Ponzi scheme” and a “silly charade.”
National media outlets weighed in, too, especially from the left. Slate said Jindal “found a mind-bendingly stupid way to pretend he isn’t raising taxes.” Mother Jones called the deal “sheer dumbness.” Salon went for “smoke and mirrors” and “absurd.” To The Week, it was “comical” and “bizarre.” The New York Times headlined its account, “Louisiana Lawmakers Hold Their Noses as They Balance the Budget.”
More surprising, perhaps, was what Louisiana Republicans had to say. “I am going to be embarrassed when I go back home,” said state Rep. Chris Broadwater, of Hammond, after voting for the arrangement. And state Treasurer John Kennedy said, “I think it’s nonsense on a stick.”
It’s unclear just how much Jindal gains in exchange for the abuse and ridicule. Yes, he apparently escapes Norquist’s disapproval and avoids attacks on his candidacy from Norquist’s legendary email network. But it’s certain the affair won’t go unnoticed by Jindal’s rivals for the nomination, and they’ll be quick to mine it for attack-ad material.
Even before Jindal pulled the fiscal rabbit from the hat, one Republican candidate, Rand Paul, of Kentucky, showed he was paying attention to the goings-on in Baton Rouge when he responded to Jindal’s criticism of his U.S. Senate record: How ironic, a Paul aide said, to take heat from a governor who “has cratered his own state’s economy and budget.”
Maybe Jindal was not bold enough. Why stop at a $1,500-a-head proposal to produce $350 million in offsets? Why not $15,000? Or $150,000? That might unleash enough money to repave roads throughout the state, restore much of the endangered coastline and build a high-speed rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — all without raising any taxes.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is groberts@the advocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/