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29.3.10

Jindal hits major themes except for future big picture

Part campaign speech, part softening up expected opposition on some matters, nonetheless Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2010 State of the State Address provided some large strategic indicators revealing how and decent reassurance that Jindal has fortitude to deal with satisfactorily a challenging fiscal environment for the upcoming fiscal year. Beyond that, he left us uncertain.


Jindal gave his remarks essentially extemporaneously, a skill perhaps explained when he made references to national politics tied to state concerns, leading to the suspicion that remarks somewhat similar to these have been delivered before in locations outside of the state. Concentrating almost exclusively on touting specific policies due hoped-for legislative deliberation, nonetheless he used them together to make several larger points.


First, to the consternation of critics on the left who say he has helped cut taxes too much and to those on the right who, regardless of any real evidence to support this thought, insist he is going to collaborate to raise taxes, he once again avowed he would not in the quest to address budgetary concerns. (Raising fees – on drivers’ licenses for many, state park users, and those pursuing higher education without the benefit of TOPS – are another matter than he did not address and which he does want to raise, but fees are not taxes – fees are voluntary and necessarily related to the service for which they are charged.) He called on state government to live within its means which indicates he will continue his welcome and increasingly successful campaign to make government work more efficiently and, to a lesser extent, change its priorities.


Second and related, he solidified his ground against some criticisms. Louisiana’s Legislative Black Caucus has protested by note and deeds his request and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s agreement in suing the federal government over certain provisions of the recently-enacted health care reform law, saying that trying to overturn certain parts of the law that may violate state sovereignty was wasteful of time and money especially not needed in the current fiscal environment.


But Jindal sent a response when he remarked about how the provisions, which he called an “unfunded mandate,” would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually soon. And, in an echo of his anti-tax remarks, he implied that improvements in economic indicators, along the lines of employment, inflation, business activities, and bond ratings, resulted from his support of tax cuts and regulatory changes.


Third, to some degree he buttered up the Legislature because he’ll need its support to accomplish some more specific things that could be controversial. It began with the honorable gesture of asking for a moment to remember the late state Rep. Avon Honey – but ironic because last year Honey’s attentiveness and his legislative opponents’ inattentiveness caused perhaps the biggest legislative embarrassment for Jindal when he got the House to approve a bill in direct contradiction to Jindal’s stated intentions regarding unemployment benefits.


At several points, Jindal preached how everybody had to work together, and at many points promoted initiatives and sometimes their legislative authors. He even cooed about the House’s speaker pro-tem vote that had actual open conflict for the first time in years. Some have criticized Jindal for being too detached (perhaps, some suggest, as he divides his attentions too much with national elective ambitions) from the legislative process so this may be a signal he’s willing to get up close and personal to work with them on these matters he sees as important. With the first couple of years gone in his term and likely some reduction in political capital plus with stakes being higher, he would do well to get his Administration more personally involved.


I grade governors on these and this work got Jindal a solid ‘B.’ Yet he didn’t deserve an ‘A’ because of what he didn’t address – what happens after this session relative to the spending plan it will produce. While this could seem unfair, since he’ll have another speech next year to go into this, it’s relevant now and needs explanation now because decisions made this year may impact critically next year given an even larger deficit is forecast now for it.


To date, Jindal has tinkered well with getting more out of government with less. But the magnitude of the crisis forthcoming will require grander gestures and thinking. Recognition of this that specifies the larger solutions necessary must come out now. That some of Jindal’s tinkering is not wise (such as redefining the purpose of the Budget Stabilization Fund) does not lend complete confidence that the state’s fiscal structure truly will be positioned to fend off potential financial catastrophe. Before much longer, we really need to hear from him on this account.

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