Political Horizons: Jindal won, but only by a bit

by mark ballard

Capitol news bureau

Mark Ballard.
Mark Ballard.

T he prevailing wisdom among bloggers, pundits and columnists is that Gov. Bobby Jindal was the big loser from the legislative session that ended last week.

Maybe, but the evidence does not fully support that supposition.

Compared to the blitzkrieg of last year’s drive to revamp public schools before GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney chose a running mate, Jindal this year looked like he took his ball and went home.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley said the governor played no role in negotiations over the state budget until the deal was made, an observation echoed by other legislators. After giving up on eliminating income taxes, the rest of Jindal’s legislative “package” was thin.

But, as the dean of the House, New Orleans Democratic State Rep. Jeff Arnold, said before the session started: “This is Louisiana and the governor is the governor.”

Jindal spiked a popular tax increase on smokers, killed necessary efforts to reign in TOPS, stopped a lucrative Medicaid expansion, derailed a move to make his government’s records more transparent and kept legislators from eliminating the same tax credits he wanted to dump a few weeks earlier.

“That’s all true, but what did he get that he wanted?” asked state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin and once a political operative for Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

One difference is Scott Angelle, who learned his politics on the parish level in the rough and tumble police jury world of Acadiana. He once led the effort to turn wavering legislators towards Jindal.

Angelle has since joined the state Public Service Commission. He was replaced on the governor’s influence squad by young, pretty people from other states who learned about the Louisiana north of the Bonnet CarrĂ© when they arrived from some GOP campaign organization or national conservative advocacy group.

They don’t have the same gravitas and dealt mainly with the legislators already firmly at Jindal’s side, Jones said.

Angelle, on the other hand, was frequently seen shouting instructions over the rail in the House chamber or in some corner poking his finger in the chest of a wayward lawmaker.

“But you know,” Jones said, “I don’t think those tactics would have worked this year.”

A lot of legislators meekly went along with Jindal’s education revamp in Baton Rouge, only to be the target of abuse at home, particularly in GOP strongholds with good public schools, like Livingston and St. Tammany parishes, Jones said.

They entered 2013 cautious as Jindal geared up again to please the national conservative money machine by trying to swap income taxes for sales taxes.

Louisiana’s business community balked at losing long-cherished tax breaks. That gave lawmakers enough cover to plot when Jindal gamed the numbers to make his case; to ask questions when the governor’s top aides launched into condescendingly convoluted explanations; to talk back when lesser aides made threats.

Jindal backed down, withdrawing his tax swap plan at the start of the session in April.

At least one unexpected consequence was the alliance between “fiscal hawks,” a self-described group of conservative Republicans, and Democrats in the Louisiana House. They found common ground on a handful of infrastructure changes that would give legislators more of a say in putting together a budget that balanced available revenues with spending for services.

The 105-member House has 47 Democrats — six short of the majority needed to pass legislation. Fiscal hawk numbers wavered depending on what was being offered, but a dozen or so members stayed true, at least on budget issues.

“We were careful not to get outside of what we could agree on,” said the head of the fiscal hawks, state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, adding that on some issues, such as Medicaid expansion, the alliance crumbled.

Still, Geymann was vilified as traitor by tea party types and the Jindal-controlled Louisiana Republican Party apparatus.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted,” Geymann said Thursday, wearing blue jeans and an easy smile while waiting for the budget to come up for the House ratification. “But I think it’s a good first step. I think, I hope, that the House continues to be involved in the state’s budgeting process.”

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