Stephanie Grace: Beginning of end of Jindal era?

What a difference a year makes.

The 2012 legislative session was a triumph for Gov. Bobby Jindal. Fresh off a landslide re-election victory against a motley assortment of no-name challengers, Jindal muscled a sprawling, education reform package through the process, and wound up getting almost every element he wanted.

When it comes to major, reputation-making initiatives, though, the 2013 session will be remembered for a spectacular failure. Jindal set out to follow up on the education initiative with an equally ambitious revamp of the way Louisiana taxes its citizens. But his proposal for a grand swap — the elimination of personal income taxes coupled with a substantial hike in already-steep sales taxes — proved such a clunker that he had to shelve it before the session even got started.

When it was over, Jindal could still claim to have gotten his way on multiple fronts, and he did just that. His office issued a four-page list of successful measures from his legislative package, from increased mental-health reporting standards for gun purchases to updated licensing of early childhood education facilities to the expansion of the definition of child abuse to include “coerced abortion.” Yet in what was probably his last chance to go really big, Jindal can’t say he did.

Another way of looking at the session is that Jindal successfully played defense. He secured money out of the general fund for the controversial private school voucher piece of his education initiative, after the courts threw out the original financing mechanism. He also fended off legislative efforts to force the administration to expand Medicaid, a part of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, as well as an attempt to control the cost of the popular TOPS college tuition grants. But he didn’t do much on offense.

Politicians’ fortunes ebb and flow, but at this point in his second term, it’s hard to envision the governor ever again having his way with the Legislature, not the way he did even a year ago.

Part of the reason has to do with simple timing. While Jindal is just a year and a half into his second term, the countdown to its end is already on, and the state’s most-prominent politicians are busy positioning themselves for life after Jindal’s gone. State Rep. John Bel Edwards has already announced his candidacy for 2015, and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand is shopping around a self-financed poll showing his purported promise. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, and several other big names are also lurking.

But a lot has to do with how Jindal and his team have played things.

The education proposals were clearly designed to look impressive on the national stage, but at least there was real, grassroots support for many of the program’s elements, including the expansion of charter schools and elimination of traditional teacher tenure. But, aside from movement conservatives and Jindal staffers, it was hard to find anyone who thought the income-sales tax swap was a good idea.

And if Jindal thought his success in pressuring lawmakers to go along with even politically dicey and constitutionally questionable elements of the education package boded well, the opposite was true. Many showed up this year far less willing to take a hit for a governor who will never again have to stand before Louisiana voters; most of them, after all, will.

It’s entirely normal for a governor to lose some sway at this point in his tenure, but Jindal’s approach probably accelerated things. By pursuing a policy so nakedly designed to pad his résumé rather than bolster the state, he made it easy for lawmakers to say, thanks, but no thanks. And while the moment has passed, the impression that he cares more about his own national image than the state’s very real problems remains — which will make it that much harder for Jindal to overcome skepticism from lawmakers in the future.

So sure, the governor can boast of incremental success this session, and he can probably plan on more of the same next year, and even the year after that. As far as big, transformative ideas, though, this session will likely go down as the beginning of the end of the Jindal era.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com