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Jindal speech plays defense when more offense needed

That Gov. Bobby Jindal spent most of the portion of his State of the State speech concerning state matters on defense rather than offense was not how to come out of the gate to get enacted the most ambitious legislative agenda of his yet. That could indicate his reelection campaign has begun and leaves that agenda’s passage exposed to potential failure.

Jindal, the cautious reformer and slow transformer of government, has some paradigm-shifting ideas encapsulated into legislation cued up for this regular session. He’s come to the point where administrative discretion alone can’t create more efficiency in operating government but needs legislators to take the next step with him. His ideas include privatizing some prison operations and even prisons themselves, streamlining the higher education system and making users take a greater responsibility for their education in exchange for improved college performance, creating a stable funding base for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars, and beginning a more serious effort to shore up the ticking time bomb that is Louisiana’s underfunded retirement system.

These could face some tough sledding. Plenty of legislators think of prisons first as workfare for constituents and only incidentally as correctional facilities. The same applies to the university system and its surplus of governing boards as regards educating. Lots of state workers long on the pension gravy train can put plenty of pressure on lawmakers to keep the system the same. But in each case, the intellectual case, in terms of providing good service at an economical price, and the moral case, in terms of doing what’s right for the citizenry by the citizenry’s resources, validates the changes he supports.

If Jindal truly has invested himself in getting these enacted, might have been expected to make at least a brief case for them. Instead, when he was not extolling past achievements (and not spending time talking about national policy), he was buttressing his opposition to any tax code changes that could increase taxation for anybody. True, it goes without saying, despite noisy special interests that would otherwise benefit from increased spending, that Louisiana has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, and there’s no intellectual or moral case for tax increases. Yet Jindal said it anyway because it was the safe thing to do for reelection purposes, and for the same reason hardly mentioned any of these ideas.

To date, Jindal’s only real strategy to back these ideas is that if not made into reality, more budget cuts loom on the horizon. That may cut it as a practical explanation, but scaring people doesn’t persuade them, and enough may not be scared enough to give him the necessary majorities to get these things passed (especially regarding the merger of Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans, the least immediate money-saving proposal of the bunch where the entire Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus should oppose that meaning he’s only got a few votes to spare for passage right of the bat).

But tendering this tactic plays it safe for electability. It would be disappointing if Jindal saw these items more as ploys to get reelected, where he cares more that they be associated with him than if they actually become policy. That’s an unfortunate conclusion that could be drawn if viewing the address as a bellwether concerning Jindal’s attitude about the session.

Of course, it’s not that more than a fraction of Louisiana’s population will see or read about the speech. And perhaps Jindal will end up speaking softly but carrying a big stick on this to whip his agenda through. Even if not and symbolism he sees as the main benefit from the package with reelection in mind, maybe he plans to be much more aggressive next year with reelection out of the way. Still, advocates of the agenda would prefer not to be kept guessing about whether Jindal truly has passion about these items through his making them so visibly supported by him with such an opportunity as afforded by the address.

For that reason, in my annual grading exercise of these speeches, he can’t get higher than a C. Competent and low risk it was, but if he’s really aiming as high as he claims by articulating backing of these measures, nothing short of a full-throated display of leadership on them was called for at that moment.

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