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Cautious speech allows Jindal to scrape B- grade

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s State of the State speech to open the 2009 regular session of the Louisiana Legislature was not quite night-and-day compared to last year, but the differences were palpable.

In his inaugural address and well as in a couple of other addresses prior to sessions regular and special, Jindal gave fairly detailed synopses of where he wanted the state to go from a prepared text aimed really at the public. This time around, Jindal spoke without notes revealing little detail about his preferred initiatives and those from legislators he favored in a shorter address pitched more at legislators themselves, of which perhaps half was an (arguably rosy) overview of what he saw as signal accomplishments from state government in the previous year.

Yes, there’s been more in-migration than out- in the past couple of years, but formerly displaced citizens from the hurricane disasters of 2005 returning might have something more to do with that than some marginal tax cuts and the beginning of workforce development changes and ethics reform. True, Louisiana’s job picture is comparatively speaking brighter than anywhere else at this moment in the country, but that also probably is largely a byproduct of the displaced tide surging back in, and it must be noted a significant number of those jobs created came in government. Still, in structural terms, it cannot seriously be argued that the state is not better off than it was 15 months ago.

But that’s obviously not the case in fiscal terms. Jindal only spent a small portion and the only real specificity of the speech outlining five spending reforms, after warning of the budget problem ahead and how much worse it can be in the next two years. This explains the rehash of past laurels but vague pronouncements going forward: Jindal knows some of what will come out of this session in budgetary impact will not be liked and if he puts too big of a stamp on it that may transfer onto him. Many of his successes last year were fairly low risk and/or low profile; this year, political returns are going to be low and great risk will have to be taken for any big payoffs – which could turn into big disasters as well.

So look for Jindal to play things pretty safe this session, letting others grab headlines. That doesn’t mean he can’t be quite effective, but also it hopefully does not mean he won’t be bold when he needs to be (such as in Medicaid spending reform which, as he noted, could jump hundreds of millions of dollars next year even as revenues change little). It’s in these tougher times when real leadership is needed, regardless how visible, and Jindal’s speech implies he wishes to retain flexibility and not tie himself to too many and/or controversial things in order to provide it.

So for his grade, Jindal as a decent thesis overall, just not well supported. More ambitious talk about more good measures that could help their chances of passing would have been better, if politically riskier. I’ll be generous in this borderline case and give him a B-.

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