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Jindal address plays safe, leaves guessing for future

If you’re looking for radical change coming from Gov. Bobby Jindal this legislative session, you can’t find much of it in from his State of the State address prior to the opening of the 2008 Regular Session. That doesn’t mean it won’t eventually happen, while it does indicate Jindal’s strategy of caution for his first year in office amid potentially hard fiscal times for the state in the near future.

Jindal’s campaign last year promised three broad things: reducing the size and spending of government, empowering people rather than special interests, and shifting spending priorities. What he plans, according to things like his budget, to serve up this session is little of the first, some of the second, and more of the third – but you couldn’t tell from his speech which concentrated on priorities only, and the uncontroversial items at that.

Best exemplifying shifting priorities is the signature item intended by Jindal, workforce development, more perestroika than anything else the most radical change of which is dismantling the state’s Department of Labor into a more decentralized system, and some changes to education delivery. But nothing was heard concerning related items already released by his administration that are much more controversial, such as merit pay for teachers and pumping over $300 million into a fund to entice large-scale employers.

Some glimpses or far-reaching change did sparkle throughout his message. Using education as an example, Jindal discussed things such as a “teachers’ bill of rights” and laws to increase penalties against teacher assault. But mostly he touched on technocratic issues, making government work better, and not much on announced policy changes that would shift power to people, such as increased access to private schools that also will improve public education through competition.

So Jindal mostly played it safe in his address, championing popular items or saying he would make government work better which nobody is against. This continues the debate about Jindal the leader: will he truly lead the state in a different direction, or just do a better job in directing the state to a place not very different from what we have now? While factors such as looming future deficits as federal recovery money peters out and fixing spending difficulties introduced by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco do constrain what Jindal can do, on its surface this address seems to indicate the latter.

With that in mind, in keeping with my habit of grading these efforts, I’ll give him a B-. But for that grade to go any higher in future years, or even to prevent it going lower, we’ll need to hear more about empowering people and reduction of government even if he can get government working better. Because when government takes resources from the people and uses them in places it shouldn’t be, how well it does that is entirely a moot point.

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