Bobby Jindal took his oath of office last week with the best prospects for success as a 'reform governor" that we've seen in at least two generations. There are several reasons why " but the important thing to remember is that, no matter how bright his prospects may be, there are no guarantees. Reform does not come naturally or easily to Louisiana. He has his work cut out for him, and he can't afford any missteps. There are two main differences between the circumstances surrounding Gov. Jindal's arrival and the political lay of the land that greeted Louisiana's last reform governor, Buddy Roemer (1988-92). First, Roemer inherited a deficit of approximately $1 billion. Jindal, on the other hand, has a surplus of more than $2 billion.
It's hard enough to do reform on a good day; trying to do it without any money to spend is really tough. Jindal will have lots of money to spend, and he already has figured out that his best shot at passing his yet-to-be-written ethics reform package is to delay carving up the surplus until after his planned Feb. 10 special session, which will be devoted exclusively to ethics reform.
Second, Roemer, though elected as a reformer, inherited a Legislature dominated by allies of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, the Anti-Christ of political reform. EWE used to regale audiences by promising "pretty good government" — and through his friends in the House and Senate, he frustrated many of Roemer's reform initiatives.
Last fall, after more than a quarter-century of pretty good government, Louisiana voters sent a message that they want the real deal. Thanks to legislative term limits, which took effect for the first time in last year's statewide elections, Jindal has a Legislature that's almost as new as he is. And just about all of those new faces made promises of ethics reform similar to Jindal's.
If it wasn't plain already, it was painfully obvious last Monday, Inauguration Day, that the Edwin Edwards era is over. Very few of EWE's old legislative allies are still in office, and those who remain are likely contemplating legacies that aim a tad higher than 'pretty good government." That should be great news for Jindal.
Having said all that, meaningful ethics reform (and there's considerable disagreement as to what that means) will be a tough sell. The new governor will need every weapon in his political arsenal to pass a strong ethics package, once he decides what he wants it to look like. (See 'Commentary.")
Speaking of weapons in his arsenal, I couldn't help flinching when Jindal tossed a grenade during his inaugural address. Fairly early in his speech, the new governor noted 'decades of failure" in Louisiana government. He followed that with, 'You have often heard me say that we do not have a poor state, but a state with poor leadership." (Emphasis added)
There were four former governors on the dais listening to those words: his immediate predecessor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat; and three Republicans, Mike Foster, Roemer and Dave Treen. Foster gave Jindal his start in politics. Was Foster part of those 'decades of failure?" If so, what role did Jindal, a high-ranking member of Foster's administration, play in that failure?
My point here is two-fold. First, the campaign is over. Rhetorical grenades are useful during a campaign, but when the campaign is over, it's time for candidates to become statesmen.
Second, if Jindal is going to be the reform governor he promised, then he's going to make enough enemies as a matter of course " he doesn't need to go out of his way to step on toes.
Jindal had a point to make, but he could have made it without needlessly slapping his predecessors. For example, he could have said, 'We have been called a poor state, but the truth is we have simply made too many poor decisions." That's not only more diplomatic, but also closer to the truth. All of us " the voters, and even Bobby Jindal " were part of those decades of failure.
Now, we all have a role to play in fixing what went wrong. Pointing fingers is not the best way to start.