Stephanie Grace: Looking to post-Jindal era

About a year ago, during a casual but far-reaching conversation about Louisiana politics, state Senate President John Alario said something that’s stuck with me ever since.

No matter who winds up running to replace Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2015, Alario predicted, the conversation during the next campaign will be dominated by the current governor’s unfinished business, particularly when it comes to the budgetary matters.

That means a new conversation about revenue, without Jindal’s absolute aversion to not only taxes but anything that might be cast as a tax in, say, a presidential campaign.

It means a fresh look at whether the state can really afford to reject the Medicaid expansion that is part of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Jindal, of course, has positioned himself as a staunch ACA critic and argued that Louisiana should forego three fully paid years and 90 percent federal financing beyond that because the state can’t afford the future 10 percent share. Ask around the Capitol and the public health community, though, and you’ll hear plenty of people quietly acknowledge that Louisiana can’t afford not to.

It also means real debate over how to rein in the runaway cost of the popular TOPS college scholarship program, whether new restrictions are based on merit, need, willingness of students to stay in Louisiana or other factors. Jindal also put his foot down on any changes to TOPS on his watch, but many insiders agree the hugely popular entitlement is simply not sustainable.

It should go without saying that Alario, who’s had a front row seat for decades and has studied the political landscape from every angle — House and Senate, Democrat and Republican, as Edwin Edwards’ confidant and Jindal’s ally — knows his stuff. And indeed, those conversations already are starting to bubble up.

As usual, lawmakers gathered for the legislative session are exhibiting no appetite to push back against Jindal on TOPS, which cost $40 million in the late 1990s, takes a $217 million bite out of the budget now and could soar as high as $300 million by 2016, the next governor’s first year in office. Last week, state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, shelved his bill that would require TOPS recipients who leave Louisiana after graduation to repay the state, adding it to a long line of measures that have gone nowhere.

Yet, in what could be a sign of the Legislature’s real mood, some key lawmakers with close ties to Jindal have gone public with their belief that something needs to be done, no matter how popular the program is. They include House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, who said at a higher ed conference a few months back that, “if we don’t do something, it won’t be sustainable,” as well as House Education Chairman Steve Carter, who noted at the same meeting that Jindal won’t act in part because Phyllis Taylor, who played a key role in creating TOPS along with her late husband Patrick, “has the ear of the governor.”

“We have to find a governor that prioritizes higher education,” Carter continued. “The governor is the key … we have an opportunity as a group to make sure the candidates who run for governor list higher education as a top priority.”

Medicaid expansion proponents have proposed a constitutional amendment to give voters, not the governor, the final say. They’re not expected to get the votes they’d need from the Legislature, but don’t expect this to be the last word either.

For a hint of what’s to come, listen closely to Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne’s words. Dardenne, a Republican candidate for governor, recently reiterated his opposition to the ACA and is suing the liberal group MoveOn.org for using the state’s tourism slogan and mark on a Baton Rouge billboard to satirize Jindal’s obstinacy. But ask about the issue itself, and he offers a more nuanced take.

“The jury’s still out on what we should do. I don’t think Louisiana has made the kind of inquiry of whether there’s a potential waiver to be negotiated,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t think there’s been adequate discussion of what’s possible. Frankly, it’s been couched in a purely partisan context.”

(U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the other major Republican seeking the office, hasn’t said much on the issue. If he too cracks open the door, then we’ll know something’s really going on).

Of course, it would be a mistake to expect state politics to veer onto an entirely different course once Jindal’s tenure is over. From all appearances so far this session, lawmakers remain very much on the same page with the governor on a wide range of issues, from abortion to those levee board lawsuits.

But when it comes to the state’s budget, Jindal gets the final call only so long as he remains in charge. After that, it’ll be a whole new ball game.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.