Jindal Agenda?

Jindal Agenda?—An American born of Indian immigrant parents; a biology degree from Brown University; Rhodes Scholar; Congressional intern; member of the U.S. House; and the youngest governor in the nation. Bobby Jindal was the perfect new face to attract minority voters to a regional white party.

Then he was selected to deliver his party’s response to the president’s address to the Congress (and the nation) on February 24, and the result was a speech so stunningly bad that it was painful to watch. Overnight, pundits who had cast him as the Republican Party’s Barack Obama were asking if he is the right candidate to lead his party out of the desert and into the 2012 presidential race.

Here’s a more timely question. Is Bobby Jindal the right candidate for the office he currently holds?

Jindal is bright. He’s a talented technocrat and a gifted campaigner. He’s also zealously devoted to the free-market ideology that informed his response to President Obama in February—which puts the state of Louisiana in a bind.

Louisiana is a low-tax state that provides meager social services. It has the third-highest poverty rate in the nation, the fourth-lowest average household income in the nation, is thirty-third in per-pupil spending in public schools (a ranking skewed upward because of the federal aid that flows to the state because of its high poverty rate), forty-sixth in high school graduation rates, forty-ninth in overall health care and fourth in percentage of the population without health insurance. It has the third highest percentage in the nation of residents with no high school diploma or equivalent G.E.D.

If not a Third World state, a state in need of public investment. Yet most of Jindal’s tenure as governor (elected in 2007) has been devoted to cutting taxes, even if one line in his unfortunate speech—”we cut taxes six times, including the largest income tax cut in the history of our state”—was a stretch.

When Jindal took office, the Louisiana Legislature was in the process of overturning a 2002 constitutional amendment that had increased taxes on Louisianans earning more than $80,000, in order to compensate for reductions in sales taxes on food, utilities, and prescription drugs. When Jindal couldn’t stop the Legislature from rescinding a tax increase on the wealthy (A Louisiana family earning $100,000 falls in the top 15 percent), he took credit for a $300 million tax cut he hadn’t really supported. (Jindal also opposed universal pre-kindergarten education—too costly; then got behind it when it became evident that he couldn’t stop it.)

But Jindal promised tax cuts. He delivered tax cuts. He pushed business tax cuts through a special legislative session in March 2008, reducing rates that businesses pay on utilities and on the purchase of new equipment. He has signed on to Americans for Tax Reform’s “solemn” pledge “to oppose any and all tax increases.” He promises to veto any tax increase that crosses his desk. He’s also refusing $100 million of the $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money set aside for his state, and has suggested he may turn down even more of it.

On April 27, the Legislature convenes in Baton Rouge, and legislators will confront a $1.3 billion deficit. The governor’s response is a list of proposed budget cuts (here compiled by the Associated Press):

Higher education: $382.2 million; Department of Health and Hospitals: $380.8 million; Department of Corrections: $133 million; Department of Education: $108.7 million; Department of Social Services: $58.5 million; Office of Juvenile Justice: $42.4 million; Office of Student Financial Assistance: $36.7 million; Louisiana State University’s Health Care Services Division (public hospitals): $31.3 million.

There’s much more—the National Guard; emergency preparedness. The governor even manages to squeeze $7.8 million out of the state schools for the deaf and visually impaired.

Fourteen years ago in Texas, George W. Bush turned the Legislature into an extension of his presidential campaign, cutting taxes and cutting back on social services. Today in Louisiana, Democratic State Representative Rickey Hardy worries that the state’s fiscal policy is being distorted by Jindal’s presidential aspirations. Hardy said the Legislature will attempt to override the governor and see that all the stimulus money available to Louisiana is spent.

“We’re facing critical choices and hard times, and we have a governor with his eye on the White House. This state has been through three hurricanes: Gustav, Katrina, and Ike. Those folks who are unemployed paid federal income taxes and that stimulus money is coming from Washington. There’s no reason that it shouldn’t be used to extend their unemployment benefits and provide them a little extra money to live on.”