Stephanie Grace: Jindal could have spent own money on tax plan

As a taxpayer, my first thought upon reading that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration had spent $800,000 in public money to promote last spring’s spectacularly unpopular tax-revamp proposal was that I’d like a refund.

More than $500,000 for financial consulting and temporary help to put the proposal together? Okay, maybe — maybe — there’s a way to justify that. But multiple contracts worth anywhere from $10,000 to nearly $50,000 apiece for things like website development, multimedia campaigns, and public-relations outreach to low-income, rural and minority communities, all to sell an idea that was never sellable, to try to purchase buy-in from a public that could see perfectly clearly that it was a bad deal?

Sorry, governor. This will go down as just one more way your drive to eliminate state income taxes and replace them with significantly higher sales taxes, at the urging of nobody in particular other than the sort of anti-tax purists with whom you’ve been hanging out lately, revealed just how much you’ve lost touch with your own constituents.

Sure, in the grand scheme of things, $800,000 isn’t that much, not when the state is set to spend $25 billion this year.

The money could have covered only a fifth of the $4 million the governor vetoed — to withering criticism — for in-home services for the developmentally disabled. It would have done little to ease huge cuts to higher education and health care.

On the other hand, $800,000 would also have barely made a dent in the governor’s own campaign bank account, which as of the first of the year, contained about $3.8 million. And that money’s just sitting there waiting to be used for political purposes like, say, a campaign to pass some big initiative that Jindal can talk about in all those out-of-town speeches he makes and opinion columns he writes.

But hey, state revenue secretary Tim Barfield says spending all that money was worth it because the administration “learned a lot about the appetite for this type of reform.” Well, you’d certainly hope so.

Still, it seems like Jindal’s troops could also have learned a lot — while spending a lot less — had they simply taken care of the basics themselves.

They could have included more lawmakers in their initial discussions, and gotten valuable feedback on which tax-reform ideas the Legislature might be willing to consider and which would be dead on arrival. You can bet that they would have heard an earful about Jindal’s proposal to raise the state sales tax, at first by 47 and then, under revised projections, by 56 percent.

Had they done so, they probably would also have learned that many legislators had taken lots of heat from their constituents for backing Jindal’s big, audacious education reform package the previous year, and weren’t willing to go to the mat for him a second time over an even more controversial idea.

And they could have done a much better job of assessing whether key interest groups would have had Jindal’s back. One very influential interest group that didn’t, of course, was the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Dan Juneau, the group’s retiring president, noted that LABI had often worked closely with the governor and even “expended a considerable amount of political capital in supporting his reform efforts.” But the likelihood that taxes on businesses would have risen by $500 million or more, Juneau said, made the proposal a non-starter.

No public-relations campaign, no matter how effective, is going to overcome skepticism and outright resistance like that.

I’m guessing that, had they asked, a lot of people would have been able to explain as much to the governor and his troops. Better yet — they probably would have done it for free.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.