Stephanie Grace: We once wanted governors to travel

Once upon a time, people in Louisiana couldn’t wait for their governor to hit the road.

That’s not a fairy tale, but a relatively recent chapter in state history.

Former Gov. Mike Foster’s two terms, which ran from 1996 to 2004, were marked by big changes in school accountability and investment in higher education, among other accomplishments. He also had a much-discussed shortcoming: While other governors traveled the world to lure industrial investment to their states, Foster confined his hunting excursions to nearby duck blinds.

So, it was no coincidence that the candidates’ eagerness to venture beyond the state’s borders emerged as a top-shelf issue in the campaign to replace him. Kathleen Blanco’s traveling shoes were prominently featured in her campaign ads, and she kept them handy during her term in office, when she often jetted off in search of economic development before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and disaster aid afterward.

If Blanco proved willing to hit the road, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s got downright itchy feet.

He can’t seem to stay home for more than a few days at a time. And his trips, of course, have little to do with promoting Louisiana and a whole lot to do with selling himself.

This is not a recent development. Since he’s been in office, Jindal’s been traveling to other states to raise money for or appear with Republican candidates in state races, a tried-and-true way to test the waters and collect chits. When the 2012 national election came around, he campaigned in Iowa with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then happily signed on as a surrogate for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

With a possible run of his own looming, though, Jindal’s schedule has become positively dizzying. He spent last weekend in Iowa, the first caucus state. Next month he’s planning a road trip to New Hampshire, home of the first primary. And he’s constantly heading out to hold meetings for his think tank, which is staffed by operatives with national experience but no local ties, or to give speeches or appear on national talk shows.

It’s worth noting that the state’s economic development climate doesn’t seem to have suffered from Jindal’s more personal focus. For a long list of reasons, including but not at all limited to incentives and recruiting by his administration, the business climate is good — so good that complaints over Louisiana’s litigious environment and tax structure ring pretty hollow. In fact, one way to spot Jindal in person, if you don’t feel like hopping a plane to Des Moines and checking out the Iowa State Fair, is to drop in on some announcement or ribbon-cutting for a new facility.

That doesn’t mean the state’s not worse off for Jindal’s efforts to make an impression around the country. Time and again, he’s taken policy positions that make sense only if viewed through the lens of national politics. Jindal’s rejection of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which would net piles of federal money to insure Louisiana’s working poor, is one obvious example. So is his flip-flop on the Common Core, which he backed until conservative activists around the country decided to make it a states’ rights issue.

On taxes, Jindal’s cast his lot with absolutists like Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, to the point where he vetoed a paltry 4-cent cigarette tax renewal on the grounds that it could be construed as a tax hike (the Legislature got around him by attaching the measure to a constitutional amendment that didn’t require the governor’s signature). Two years later, he proposed eliminating the state income tax, an idea he’d previously opposed, without testing local support or even seeming to consider the side effect of higher sales taxes. The idea was such a dud that Jindal wound up shelving it on the 2013 legislative session’s opening day.

Decisions like these, just as much as Jindal’s incessant wandering, are fueling the backlash that’s already evident in the early campaign to succeed him. Like most political races, this one likely will focus on how the candidates will differ from the prior regime.

They may well talk about travel. But unlike 12 years ago, this time they’ll really be talking about all that the travel symbolizes.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.