Search This Blog


Sessions downplayed coming clash of governing ideas

One observer muses how it was that Gov. Bobby Jindal experienced a good (not great) deal of success in getting through the agendas of his recent special sessions, wondering whether it was a good-natured granting of a “honeymoon” or fear of a popular mandate for Jindal and thereby his policies. The answer, as the upcoming regular session might show, is more the latter but the real lesson of the sessions’ results was legislative forces opposed to Jindal used the opportunity to conserve resources for future battles even as he did the possible and collected power potentially to oppose them down the line.

The relative ease of success by Jindal might tempt one, very mistakenly, to think his agenda, reform built along the lines of reducing the size of government and shifting its spending priorities to more productive, less redistributive purposes is shared by a majority of the Legislature. Even with conservative gains in last year’s elections, liberals and populists still have a majority in the Legislature as a whole, particularly in the Senate.

This is why Jindal picked his spots carefully and why ethics reform was made into a special session and first. After all, who is against cleaner government? In truth some, a few powerful, legislators are, but with the spotlight directly on the issue, with many new legislators sharing Jindal’s ideas on this, and with Jindal having shaped his campaign around this issue more than any other which was easy for the populace to understand, the regressive forces in the Legislature knew the best they could do was water down (which they did) such reform. But Jindal got enough victories to build on his political capital even as the regressive forces conserved theirs for battles down the road they have a chance to win.

Concerning his next opportunity, Jindal had gotten a bit lucky then having budget surpluses courtesy of federal government largesse in recovery spending. There were two types, nonrecurring that the Constitution limited in kinds of spending, and recurring. Craftily but also taking some risks, his administration got legislative leaders (who in part owed their positions to Jindal) to allow just two kinds of bills.

One was using the Constitution as cover for the nonrecurring expenses. Here, regressive forces had no option constitutionally but to follow in the broad parameters; politics as usual emerged only in dividing spending within the specified categories and really only in the case of capital expenditures. The other dealing with recurring funds was to take three measures already approved in the past in various forms – transference of transportation revenues to those kinds of capital projects, elimination of certain business taxes, and favorable tax treatment of some non-public school expenses by families – all of which had been watered down or foundered because of threats and vetoes by previous Gov. Kathleen Blanco, and to try to get them through.

In the first instance, legislators like spending so Jindal only suffered minor setbacks by reallocations of it. In the second, he had more compromises forced on him but the fact many veteran legislators had passed similar measures and new solons generally were more than less favorable in attitude towards them made it hard for them to outright oppose these measures. Clever planning again meant Jindal got most of what he wanted and in doing so preserved political capital.

Of course, the tactical defeats suffered by regressive forces were minor and simply that, tactical in nature. Nor will they be challenged that much in the regular session, at least according to Jindal’s budget, this acquiescence of which in part is by the administration’s design. One thing to date it has not done that good of a job on is explaining just what a fiscal mess Blanco left behind, and to a large degree this inherited situation hamstrings him in implementation of his agenda.

As a result there’s no reduction in government (although it doesn’t have to be left at this) and only minor shifting of priorities with just one contentious issue there, merit pay for teachers. For an example of this budget that features more reprogramming than a rethink, more money will be poured into workforce development, to which there is little opposition, but no broad-based tax relief which might face fierce opposition especially in the Senate.

Thus the real questions that remain to be answered are, is Jindal correct in being cautious initially rather than pushing ahead his agenda more aggressively, or is it that will Jindal offer any fundamental philosophical change in governing at all or will he just tinker at the margins with different spending priorities but no real reduction of government? Given the looming large deficits on the horizon, the cautious approach seems warranted but at the risk of missing an opportunity to drive home fundamental fiscal reform while his political capital his high and regressive forces, even if still potent, are on the defensive.

If so, the clash will come in the future, not this regular session. Unless it’s that Jindal loses or already has lost his taste for this fundamental reform, but it looks as if we won’t know that for sure until next year’s session.

No comments: