For Bobby Jindal, April Was the Cruelest Month

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It’s become an article of faith in louisiana that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has his eye on a bigger prize. Jindal consistently, if winkingly, denies it. But in Baton Rouge, his national ambition is part of the landscape.

That’s worked out fine for the one-time Rhodes Scholar and precocious policy whiz, who landed his first big government job as secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals at just 24 and was reelected to his second term as governor in 2011 with 66 percent of the vote. Jindal, now 41, has been able to juggle his state and national agendas with relative ease.

Until now.

As the Louisiana Legislature prepared to gather for its annual session, Jindal unveiled a bold plan to eliminate the state’s personal and corporate income taxes, which won enthusiastic support from national conservatives and anti-tax purists such as the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist. Back home, the upside of the plan inspired only tepid support, and the downside—a 56 percent bump in the state sales-tax rate—drew howls of protest. By the time the Legislature convened on April 8, Jindal had to use his opening address to abandon his signature initiative and beg lawmakers to come up with their own bill to eliminate the income tax, even if it meant figuring out how to pay later. The potential substitutes never even got committee hearings.

The smartest guy in the room had made an elementary mistake. He’d failed to sell his big idea to his own constituents.

The smartest guy in the room had made an elementary mistake. He’d failed to sell his big idea to his own constituents.

Jindal and his team had cast the move as a way to make the state more competitive with Florida and Texas, which have no income tax. They argued that high base rates, even those that come with large loopholes, deter investment. But for the plan to be revenue-neutral, as Jindal had originally promised, $3 billion in lost revenue had to be found elsewhere and Jindal’s proposed increase in the state sales tax from 4 percent to 6.25 percent, when combined with local sales taxes levied by individual parishes, would have left Louisiana with the highest sales tax rate in the nation.

Jindal also proposed to expand the tax to more services, although not to basic needs such as food, utilities and prescription drugs. To counter complaints that the swap would hit poor residents hardest, he offered a rebate modeled on the federal earned income tax credit. His plan even promoted ideas he once opposed, such as eliminating the personal income tax and increasing tobacco taxes.

Jindal’s confidence might have derived from his success last year in muscling through a sweeping education package that included conservative movement goals such as eliminating traditional teacher tenure and expanding public-school choice and private-school vouchers. Louisiana government is built for such audacious gubernatorial plays; among other things, Jindal played an unofficial but significant role in choosing the Legislature’s leaders, and they in return are expected to back his agenda.

This time people weren’t buying it.

Perhaps Jindal will get credit for having tried—from the people he’s aiming to please.

A statewide poll of 600 likely voters by Southern Media & Opinion Research released less than a week before the Legislature convened found that just 27 percent favored the tax swap, while 63 percent opposed. Jindal’s job approval, which stood at 61 percent a year ago, is down to 38 percent. That makes him less popular than President Barack Obama, who lost the state by 17 points.

And the poll was completed before a string of embarrassing developments—before a group of clergy members warned that the tax plan would harm low-income workers; before the respected Public Affairs Research Council deemed the math overly optimistic; before a Jindal aide conceded that the plan would shift huge costs to business; before the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry came out against it; and before the administration revised the sales tax increase upwards to a level that would push the combined state and local levy to over 11 percent in some parishes.

Many of Jindal’s allies were skeptical. Republican state Rep. Kirk Talbot, a leader of the House “fiscal hawks” coalition who represents a district that gave Jindal 87 percent of its vote in 2011, said he’d “love to limit the income tax—I think it would be a game changer for the state.” But, he added, “We’ve got to do it in a fiscally responsible way.”

At a civic association meeting in his district, Talbot heard little support but lots of concern.

“When they heard it would make us Number One, they didn’t like that,” he said. As co-owner of the Lucky Dog hotdog empire in tourism-dependent New Orleans, Talbot agrees. “We’re going to be the most expensive city to do anything.”

Even Jindal’s anointed House Speaker refused to fall in line, announcing there would be no committee vote until lawmakers received their own fiscal analysis weeks into the two-month session.

Jindal probably won’t get to sign a tax repeal, but perhaps he’ll get credit for having tried—from the people he’s aiming to please.

At least he’ll have learned a valuable lesson for a state-level politician with national aspirations: No matter how badly you want another job, never forget who hired you for the one you already have.

 

Stephanie Grace is a New Orleans journalist and former political columnist for The Times-Picayune. Follow her at @stephgracenola and @WashSpec.

(Illustration by Edel Rodriguez)