There’s plenty to criticize about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to spend almost $2 million on the first-ever publicly financed archive to hold the records and mementos of a former governor, Mike Foster.
You could say the project is more about allegiance than governance. Foster, of course, plucked Jindal from obscurity 18 years ago, put the then-24-year-old management consultant in charge of the giant, troubled Department of Health and Hospitals and set him on his path to political prominence.
You could say that it’s unnecessary; other governors have donated their papers to the State Archives for posterity, so it’s not as if the record of Foster’s tenure would otherwise be unavailable to future generations. You could certainly say that this shouldn’t be a top priority during an era of severe budget stress. You could even note the irony in Jindal’s desire to make another governor’s records available when he’s so reluctant to share how his own administration goes about its business.
Or you could point to the elephant in the room, the fact that Jindal, for all his loyalty to his onetime boss, has not followed his lead in several policy areas that Foster deemed crucial.
Sure, Jindal has pursued policies that Foster favored. He’s continued the tradition of supporting K-12 accountability, a movement that was born during Foster’s two-term tenure — although the focus on private schools vouchers, even if those schools are not held to the same standards, is all Jindal.
The governor also has continued to fight the influence of trial lawyers.
In one major area, Jindal’s record improves upon Foster’s. If there was one nearly universal complaint about Foster, it was that he didn’t do much to attract new business to the state. Under Jindal, announcements like the one Wednesday to celebrate the relocation of a former local manufacturing firm’s headquarters from Houston to Covington have become routine; so have the government incentives for those companies, which seem to be required these days.
The areas where the two most dramatically diverge, though, are central to Foster’s legacy.
Foster, a Republican with a pragmatic streak, risked alienating his fellow conservatives when he pushed the Stelly tax plan, which raised personal income taxes while eliminating state sales taxes on necessities such as food, utilities and prescription drugs.
The idea was to make the tax structure less regressive, since poorer people spent a higher percentage of their income on basic needs, and also to not only stabilize, but yes, over time, grow state revenue.
Jindal started off on the same page on this front, and even tried to fend off a legislative move from the right, launched in fatter and happier days, to eliminate the Stelly income tax increases (he ultimately went along when it became clear lawmakers might instead repeal the income tax entirely). But as his national ambitions and the GOP tax purity movement grew, Jindal switched gears. Earlier this year, he even proposed eliminating all income taxes and raising sales taxes.
But the most visible change is that Foster fought to fully fund the state’s universities, while Jindal has cut them significantly. Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell has pointed out that state investment in education per $1,000 in personal income is at its lowest level since the 1950s.
Four years ago, in a sign of things to come, all four living, non-incarcerated governors requested a meeting with Jindal to voice concern over looming cuts to higher ed. Foster avoided criticizing the governor directly, but it was still remarkable to see him there, given the almost parental pride he’s always taken in Jindal’s ascent.
Jindal, while he returns the regard, has long sought to escape Foster’s shadow and be his own politician. On taxes and higher ed, anyway, mission accomplished.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.