Political Horizons: Impact of statistical spin

Houston’s bars close at 2 a.m.

Back in the 1990s, when I worked in Houston during the week and drove home to Baton Rouge on weekends, I noticed that come closing time, all the people still at the bar were from Louisiana doing pretty much what I was doing, living between two states.

We decided that the Bayou State — not Mexico — accounted for the largest immigrant community in the Bayou City.

For the past few years, Gov. Bobby Jindal has been taking credit for the ideas that have put “the old years of outmigration farther and farther behind us.” More recently in speeches around the state pushing his tax swap, Jindal said that while the “outmigration problem has been reversed,” the state’s tax code needed to be simplified to ensure that “more of our sons and daughters” can pursue their dreams in Louisiana.

For me, at least, it wasn’t government policy as much as crying children in the driveway every Sunday night that motivated my return.

Jindal lamented to legislators last week about the rush — all too familiar in Louisiana — to get his brother to the airport after the Easter holiday.

“My brother, like so many before him, left this great state to get a good-paying job,” Jindal said on April 8. “I look forward to the day when my nephew, my nieces and all our children, grandchildren, family and friends are living in Louisiana every day.”

Jindal’s secretary of the state Department of Economic Development, Stephen Moret, wrote last week in an email: “I’m not aware that anyone in the administration has claimed that the outmigration problem has been permanently solved.”

Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport political consultant who once worked for Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer, has criticized Jindal since 2007 for relying on spin, rather than details, in pursuing policy.

Stonecipher argues, in some detail, that the Jindal administration’s “facts” about reversing outmigration are really cherry-picked estimates from federal surveys that ignore inconvenient details and disregard methodologies.

“They go dumpster-diving for talking points,” Stonecipher said last week. “Get you a stat that you like that fits with your narrative and don’t ever look back.”

Keep in mind, however, that Moret and Stonecipher spent much of their Christmas 2012 holidays trading emails in a 5,000-word argument over the subtle meanings of the specific parts that went into calculating the outcomes in the federal surveys that Jindal was using to support his victory lap.

Moret started the exchange by suggesting to Stonecipher “that The Advocate misquoted” his position.

Stonecipher disagreed in his emailed answer, and said his real issue was that the Jindal administration claimed a squishy estimate as fact.

No government agency has been able to accurately track the people who left the state in 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita; to count how many of those evacuees returned; and to determine when they did come back, he said. Jindal’s calculation that more people now were moving in, than moving out had no starting point, Stonecipher said.

Moret answered, “We believe that the vast majority of people who decided or will decide to move back did so within two years of the hurricanes, and that most of the state’s net in-migration of the last four years is attributable to Louisiana’s economic performance relative to the rest of the South and U.S. during that time period.”

A few days before Jindal withdrew his tax rewrite plan on April 8, state Rep. Jeff Arnold, R-New Orleans, predicted the tax swap would fail in the Legislature, largely because the governor’s heavy rhetorical hand cost him credibility when trying to persuade legislators.

On the one hand, Jindal was saying how many jobs his policies brought to the state. On the other hand he was saying a dramatic change in the state’s tax structure was necessary to create jobs, Arnold recalled.

“There has to be a balance out there in their campaign,” Arnold said April 5. “By rushing this thing through at the last moment, something this big and this complicated, with nothing but their talking points, all of which flew in the face of their old talking points; that was their big mistake.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.