Political Horizons for July 10, 2011

Jindal’s ‘accomplishments’

Though he faces no well-known challenger, gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal has already deployed troops to distribute door hangers throughout several Baton Rouge neighborhoods.

All the politicians do it and all their political handouts are similar: Virtues extolled. Successes trumpeted.

Gov. Jindal’s campaign flier is no different. The governor is shown smiling. There’s no eye contact, but Jindal appears comfortable with a list of what he calls “accomplishments.”

Many of his more well-read constituents are scratching their heads at his claimed deeds and are saying, “Really?”

The answer is, “yes.”

For instance, the fact that Jindal initially opposed what he now brags is “the largest income tax cut in Louisiana’s history,” has been well reported and is not mentioned in his political advertising. But Jindal did grab the baton near the end of the effort that narrowed the income tax brackets set up by the so-called Stelly Plan.

Named after its chief sponsor, then-state Rep. Vic Stelly, R-Lake Charles, the voter-approved plan helped lower-income Louisiana residents by reducing sales taxes, and replaced the loss of state revenues by widening brackets to capture more income taxes. The state’s economists and financial leaders point to the changes in the original Stelly Plan as a major contributor to the billion-dollar shortfalls in state government revenues over the past few years. Budgets cut state services in order to balance spending with the smaller revenue available.

Jindal also claims that he is “strengthening schools.” Jindal’s door hangers list several examples, such as “raising teacher pay.”

Jindal did, in June 2008, give teachers a $1,019 annual pay raise. Teachers had sought about twice that much.

The previous year, one of the last where the state budget had surplus dollars, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco pressed legislators to increase teacher salaries by $2,375, which raised their pay to the regional average for the first time.

In the face of billion-dollar revenue shortfalls, the Minimum Foundation Program budget, which funds about two-thirds of public school costs, has remained roughly the same over the past three years, said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, a Baton Rouge-based labor union.

In terms of actual dollars, the $3.4 billion fund, better known as MFP, has grown only because of the impact that more students have on the funding formula, Monaghan said. But the part of the formula that covers some increases in costs, such as inflation, has been set aside in the past three budgets, leaving local school districts to look for money to pay the higher costs once carried by state government, he said.

Strapped for dollars, local school districts across the state — Livingston Parish being the latest — have set in motion the procedures that lead to teachers being laid off and programs being eliminated, Monaghan said.

“The speeches gave us the feel of a lot good stuff was taking place. But the talk didn’t amount to change,” Monaghan said. Reality hasn’t kept pace with the rhetoric, he said.

At a Republican Club dinner held last month in Mandeville, the public comment period turned from polite questions about the legislative session that had just ended, to scathing speeches about the quality of the public schools in St. Tammany Parish, which by most accounts are among the best in the state. White GOP men and women — people Jindal calls “the base” — complained angrily about how the choices being made, and the lack of resources, are affecting students.

Most of the criticism was aimed at Republican state Rep. Tim Burns, of Covington, who spoke at the event. The thoughtful chairman whose House Civil Law committee tackles issues like who can give expert testimony in lawsuits, Burns could do little more than grimace.

Last week, Jindal said he wanted to meet with Tara Hollis, a 33-year-old Haynesville teacher and candidate for governor, who says her campaign was started to bring attention to the dwindling dollars for public school classrooms.

Jindal said he wants to discuss his ideas for directing more dollars into education. He hasn’t yet unveiled his ideas, but Jindal said he is confident. “Maybe I’ll convince her to vote for me, he said.”

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