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Jindal leaves history-making, consequential legacy

Almost 20 years ago I remember reading a news story about former Gov. Mike Foster appointing an untested young guy not long out of Oxford as Louisiana’s health secretary. I wondered who this guy Bobby Jindal was to get such an important gig. Foster gushed with such praise about him that it seemed he had come to save the state.

Now as Jindal prepares to leave the Governor’s Mansion, through his tenure in that job, as head of today’s University of Louisiana System, and as governor, the state still needs saving from lots of things that only will multiply with his successor. But he made progress, and well before I retire from academia scholars will consider him one of the five most consequential governors in the state’s history.

Academicians holding the political beliefs they do, most will pan his policies, but they will be unable to dismiss his impact, one that at its heart abnegates what they typically support programmatically. The similarly-situated mainstream media, when the occasion rises to discuss his legacy, will find themselves in the same boat. Jindal’s tenure, best understood in context, marks the decisive turn that eventually frees the state’s political culture from its populist ethos.

Since the advent of Huey Long, no governor prior to him strayed far from the consensus that the state existed to spend money on things. While easy to trace the Democrats that followed Long to this heritage, even the few Republicans before Jindal acquiesced to the populism once irretrievably ingrained into the political culture. With the partial exception of former Gov. Buddy Roemer, who at first rebelled against this belief but all too quickly surrendered to it, all did not challenge the notion that government should collect goodies to divide them up; only that different partisans decided different constituencies should get the largesse.

Jindal rejected this formulation, preferring to conceptualize government spending on the basis not of paying off an in-group, but on the basis of whether government should fund a task that otherwise something outside of government should do; if so, at what expenditure level with that level determined by a calculation of shared responsibility designed to promote the good of that individual receiving the gift and relative to the larger collective of individuals. As a corollary, and perhaps heightened by his technocratic nature bereft of flamboyance, he demanded efficient use of taxpayer dollars ahead of less efficiency tied to the benefit of certain interests.

Government became smaller and worked smarter in his eight years. Sometimes that came by plan, as in moving Medicaid from a fee-for-service to managed capitation model or by expansion of school choice. Sometimes, it seemed more in the breach, as in bringing in nongovernment operators for most of the state’s public hospitals due to severe federal government grant cuts or to save public dollars by increasing tuition for higher education while reducing its taxpayer subsidy to rebalance that sector’s funding in a way that mirrored the proportions typically seen in other states.

He did wander into populist treatments from time to time, such as expressing belief in occasional use of shock theory economically by giving grants to private sector concerns to boost job creation that did not appear cost effective. And he did not go far enough in reducing expenditures for a state that ranks 10th in state and local government spending per capita.

Of course, this failure leaves an important unanswered question: did he not achieve more because of too much resistance from policy-makers wedded to the populist political culture that demands higher spending or because of insufficient commitment on his part? Plenty of evidence from the mouths of legislators, even ones who otherwise hold themselves out as conservatives, exists to assert the former reason, but that his running for president may have encouraged him to downplay slashing government further both to prevent displeasing certain constituencies helpful in that quest and to avoid getting tarred with a perception, which undoubtedly would have echoed through the liberal mainstream media, of callousness and indifference plays to the latter explanation. Or both; these are not mutually exclusive.

What is clear is that he has set Louisiana government on an inexorable path to shaking off populism. Even as his successor clearly comes from that lineage, unless Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards does a complete about-face from his legislative career, his coming time in office seems more a step backwards now that will set up advancement of two steps in years to come. Edwards cannot bring state hospitals back under state operation; he may try to limit but cannot destroy school choice options that make Louisiana a national leader in this regard; he cannot return to the imbalanced funding structure for higher education that once had the state among the top ten in the country in per capita spending on higher education simply because political spending demands continue to escalate while revenue production falters. He just cannot undo what Jindal did.

Only by increasing directly-levied taxes can Edwards save the populist model, and that guarantees him a single term in office before replacement by a conservative Republican ready to finish the transformation that Jindal launched. It’s tempting to wonder whether Jindal, consciously or not, understood this: as long as he found enough funding to keep a certain level of spending going without raising taxes, his successor either would feel compelled to continue the high and unsustainable rate of spending by raising taxes that would cause that governor’s political demise and a backlash that would lead to lower future spending or would accept a role in dismantling current government that is too big. Either way, Jindal’s revolution wins.

Louisiana’s history of inordinate taxation of producers relative to consumers and of government giving primacy to channeling funds to special interests has produced decades of both relatively low economic and population growth. This worldview’s inadequacy becomes more apparent with each passing year, and the pressure for its permanent rejection, if not already, in the near future will become unbearable. Populists of both parties will convert or will get driven out of office and replaced by those willing to stick the primer cord that Jindal lit into the explosives that blow up the present tolerance for the laws, regulations, and behavior that permits inefficient, big-spending state government.

Murphy Foster put into place a parochial regime that restricted political participation to favor elite interests. John Parker started to dismantle that system (except as it related to blacks) while Huey Long finished the job but replaced it with the warped, government-centric populism still existing today if diluted. Prisoner #03128-095 reinforced the populist coalition when its economic component began to fade as society changed. Jindal attacked populism at its roots to launch the beginning of its end, something some future chief executive will finish off before I retire from academia, even if not within the next four years.

That’s Jindal’s legacy. That’s why he’s important.

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