As Jindal’s statements, backed by his actions for the most part demonstrate, he is a conservative reformer in a state where the two often go hand-in-hand but seldom are genuinely pursued. Decades ago, “reform” meant getting corruption out of state politics, but recently it has come to mean additionally removing populist tendencies from state governance to focus more on service and efficiency than seeing it as a font of pork and employment opportunities. This has dovetailed with conservatism’s emphasis on smaller government and allowing people to keep more of their own resources.
As such, Jindal has been the first and only true conservative to govern Louisiana. The other two elected and one converted GOP governors of the post-Reconstruction era, Dave Treen, Buddy Roemer, and Mike Foster, presided over large expansions of Louisiana government and stumped for tax increases. Jindal neither has increased taxes (and not even any significant fees, reversing himself the one time it was tried) nor has he been at the helm of a large expansion of state spending (technically, state spending has gone down while he’s been in office but that was an artifact of disaster recovery money coming in from the federal government.) Jindal also can point to his support of income tax cuts, promises that he will not raise taxes, a state government continuing to decline in size both in terms of dollars spent and personnel employed, and a willingness to cut unneeded spending of state dollars on such things as earmarks.
But when we look closer at his record, all sorts of conditions begin popping up. He did indeed stump for income tax cuts (as well as speed up some smaller business tax cuts) and signed them into law – after remaining silent on the issue much of the time as they wended their way through the Legislature and then finally hopping on board. Maybe state spending now is going down under his watch – but that’s largely conditioned by broad national economic forces that is punishing the state’s revenue picture and, adjusting for recovery dollar effects, the budget would have crept upwards, although at a slower level than his predecessors but upwards nonetheless, without this overwhelming exogenous imperative. He did initiate efforts to reduce employment in state government – but state money applies to only about half of the classified service in the state with rest largely out of his control. He did veto hundreds of legislators’ line items steering money to local and nongovernment concerns – although some others have been allowed to continue and Jindal allows his own forms of corporate welfare that hand out substantial dollars.
This record has induced some buyers’ remorse among some conservatives who supported Jindal, presumably because they believed that Jindal would come in and produce a combination of aggressive tax cutting, reduction in state spending and overall size of government without trying to bribe companies to locate in the state, and decisive halting of pork barrel practices. Having in sum total only incompletely, and by some appearances less than enthusiastically, pursued these goals, Jindal to some comes across disappointingly or, to the particularly stubborn among them, as disingenuous.
In conceptualizing this kaleidoscopic record, Maginnis, in a discussion of more specific and recent matters, hits upon a perceptive summary of it: “whether he'll be known as a transformative governor, an incremental reformer – which is not bad – or just another can kicker.” In reviewing the kinds of changes he has succeeded in and has striven for, which of these categories best describes him becomes clear.
About the first thing Jindal went after upon getting into office was ethics reform. It was good, solid change for the better both in defining ethical practices and in their enforcement – but it could have gone further and been better. Jindal also has tried to eke better performance out of the state’s classified civil service and its higher and elementary and secondary education systems, for which the returns are not yet in. More tinkering, largely successfully, to produce better service delivery spending less money has come in the areas of workforce development and health care, featuring themes of scaling back direct government involvement. General overall reductions in state spending also have come at the margins.
Across the broad spectrum of Jindal’s initiatives, a theme emerges: Jindal prefers to downsize government, thus making it lives within its means and opening the possibility of reducing its bite on the citizenry, by having entities outside of government do something where they can do it better, and where that is not possible to try to make government work better, with occasional outright elimination of certain, relatively low-impact, functions. So far it has turned out to be a cautious, but effective strategy.
We can speculate endlessly why Jindal seems to prefer this mode of governance. He’s always been interested in policy implementation, he’s uncomfortable with big battles and grand gestures, it’s the least risky strategy to position himself for future national office, extant political forces prevent anything but this strategy, any or all of these and even other motivations may explain how he governs. Regardless, we must recognize that it does signal a significant departure from Louisiana government’s economically liberal, populist past.
Perhaps while Jindal’s campaigning and governing rhetoric leads one to believe he’ll be a transformative governor, he is certainly an incremental reformer who quietly and with a minimum of drama that, as it continues to accumulate, has produced a significant change in the state’s governing philosophy. And should he keep it up, that’s not bad.