Stephanie Grace: Jindal will serve as foil for next governor

The next gubernatorial campaign is two years off, but there’s already talk over who will run to replace Bobby Jindal. Just as interesting is a related question: What will the candidates talk about?

The question of “what” actually has a lot to do with “who,” but not so much with the identity of any particular candidate. The key “who” remains Jindal, and the “what” will be his potential successors’ efforts to explain what they would do differently.

You can chalk it up to Jindal fatigue, but this is a common dynamic. As Edwin Edwards finished his fourth term, each candidate stressed his or her ethical bona fides. Mike Foster ran a pretty clean administration but hated traveling to lure new businesses to Louisiana, so the next contest focused on that. Kathleen Blanco proved an enthusiastic recruiter, but stumbled over Hurricane Katrina. Jindal’s easy victory owed much to the sentiment that he would better manage a disaster.

Now that Jindal’s time is winding down, it’s worth considering the sort of campaign his tenure sets up.

Senate President John Alario of Westwego, a Republican Jindal ally, predicted unresolved business would dominate.

The next governor, he said, will at least revisit Jindal’s refusal to accept federal money to expand Medicaid. He or she will also have to deal with Jindal’s pet private-school voucher program, now that the courts have ruled that Minimum Foundation Program funds can’t be diverted from public schools. Also ripe for debate, Alario predicted: Should the state raise revenue once the latest temporary budget fix, a three-year tax amnesty program, ends?

On all three topics, Jindal’s positions were clearly dictated by his national aspirations, at least according to my unscientific insider sample. Those too, should shape the campaign.

“Every single candidate in the race is going to talk about how their ambitions are focused on the state, and not the national stage,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, which will issue a comprehensive look at the next governor’s agenda next year. “And that will be Republicans and Democrats.”

The candidates will also face questions on transparency, Scott and others said. Jindal has been criticized for shielding his records, and agency and public university system documents, from scrutiny. Scott singled out the negotiations to privatize the Charity Hospital system as a prime example.

Overall, health care and higher ed are likely to play big roles in the next campaign. Cuts to colleges and universities have been sizable, which Scott said may be Jindal’s “biggest vulnerability in terms of his past record.”

Among the pressing issues is the ever-expanding price of the popular TOPS program, which Jindal has jealously protected. House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat, likened the cost of funding full scholarships at a time of rising tuitions to “a runaway train.”

Vouchers, too, deserve a look, Leger and others said, as much for political as fiscal reasons. Many lawmakers felt pressured by Jindal to vastly expand vouchers. Since his attempt to fund the program automatically failed, the Legislature has to find money each year, which means the debate isn’t over.

Infrastructure is also on Leger’s list, particularly for transportation. A discussion of how to spend Louisiana’s share of BP fines from the federal Restore Act will be critical also, he said.

Perhaps the most pressing issue the next governor will face is the budget.

“I just don’t think there’s a sense that the state is funding certain things adequately,” including K-12 education, higher ed and salaries for state workers who haven’t gotten raises, said Barry Erwin, President of the Council for a Better Louisiana.

Here, too, Jindal’s ambitions have limited his options. He signed a pledge not to raise taxes, and opposed efforts to increase revenue that could be cast in that light.

Candidates to replace him probably won’t openly advocate raising taxes, but a more nuanced conversation is likely.

“I think the next governor is going to at least put revenue on the table,” said State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat. “The deficits loom each year and get worse and worse. If revenue’s not on the table, health care cuts will continue. Cuts to education will continue. You’re starting to see people’s quality of life itself affected.”

State Rep. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican and a member of the “fiscal hawks,” said he too anticipates that conversation. Henry thinks raising taxes would be a “tough sell,” but said the next governor “may be able to go in and make sure that tax exemptions are making a return on investment.”

As for how to handle that delicate topic, Henry said future candidates could cast Jindal’s no-tax pledge in an unflattering light.

“They may run on the platform,” he said, that “‘I’m not going to let some third party from Washington dictate what happens in Louisiana.’ ”

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