Bobby Jindal sounded positively wistful earlier this week, when he visited the Baton Rouge Press Club for the final time as governor. He talked about what a privilege it was for a son of immigrants who didn’t know a soul when they landed in Louisiana to lead the state. He boasted that he’d taken on big challenges and insisted he has no regrets over the agenda he set, only over the fact that he sometimes fell short. He called being governor the best job he’d ever had and probably the best one he ever will have.
Jindal’s been speaking before the Capitol press corps for two decades, dating back to his days as Gov. Mike Foster’s 20-something health secretary. Yet as he embarks on his farewell tour weeks before he’s scheduled to leave office, it’s hard to escape the sense that, at 44, he’s already yesterday’s news.
Monday, the journalists and political junkies who normally flock to the Press Club for big-name speakers voted with their feet. The room at the Belle of Baton Rouge, which had been packed to capacity weeks earlier when gubernatorial candidates John Bel Edwards and David Vitter faced off, was about half-occupied. At the same time Jindal spoke, Edwards, his surprise successor, was appearing before yet another full house at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Hammond. It’s quite clear where the action is these days.
Still, in the wake of a gubernatorial campaign that cast Jindal as the guy who drove Louisiana’s financial standing into the ditch and sold out his constituents to set up his failed presidential bid, the governor is trying to get in the last word, whether or not anyone’s still listening.
His parting message focused on familiar areas. Jindal highlighted the ethics reform package he pushed during his first days in office, his privatization of the charity hospital system, a vast expansion of school choice and accountability, growth in private sector activity and reduction in taxes. The list includes some genuinely consequential changes, particularly in health care and education, that may well determine Jindal’s long-term legacy.
“Truly I believe we’ve created a new Louisiana,” he said. “Our work’s not done, but we’ve reversed the outmigration. Our work’s not done, but we’ve created more opportunities for our children and grandchildren. Our work’s not done, but we did what we said we were going to do; we made the big changes that had to be made.”
But Jindal glossed right over the topic that dominated the campaign and tops Edwards’ to-do list: Louisiana’s budget mess. Contrary to how just about everyone else sees things, he doesn’t seem to view it as a mess at all.
He quibbled with reporters who cited recent commentary from rating agencies about his plan to plug the latest midyear financing gap by raiding reserve funds and delaying payments to vendors.
Moody’s wrote that the scheme “does not address years of unresolved structural budget deficits that have collided with a weakening state economy and a sharp drop in revenues.” Fitch chimed in with this: “These one-time actions do not address the persistent underfunding of the state’s Medicaid program and other state expenditures,” such as higher education.
Jindal, though, insisted things are working as intended. He said he set out to shrink government and insisted that growing the private sector demands starving the public sector, notwithstanding the country’s long history of government investment stimulating growth.
“You have a choice to make; you either grow the government economy or the real-world economy,” he said.
While Edwards is moving ahead with plans to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid, a proposal that leading business groups and the losing Republican candidates for governor embraced, Jindal continued to argue that it’s a bad idea.
Although supporters of higher education bemoan the steep drop in state funding, Jindal said he would have cut higher education even more to plug the midyear, $500 million shortfall rather the resort to more short-term fixes, if only the Legislature had gone along.
He also proudly recounted his support for reversing the Stelly income tax increases that were originally partnered with a cut in sales taxes, even though he was basically railroaded into doing so by legislators who threatened to eliminate the income tax entirely. His main regret, he said, was that he couldn’t sell lawmakers, the business community and the public on a later attempt to get rid of the income tax, a proposal that would have been paired with a steep increase in sales tax. The problem wasn’t the concept, he said, but the fact that he tried to do too much at one time.
Well, that’s one way of putting it.
Others will remember the 2013 initiative, which Jindal had to pull on the legislative session’s opening day, as one of many maneuvers aimed at positioning himself for the national campaign without taking his constituents’ needs into consideration. Just as others will remember Jindal’s tenure not for ambitions realized but for hopes dashed — no matter how hard Jindal tries to sell his version of the story to anyone who’s still listening.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.