One year ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal was coming off a resounding re-election victory and preparing to push a far-reaching education package through the state Legislature that conservatives nationwide would hail.
“He was riding high,” said state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers. “He was on a second honeymoon. He was flying as high as a kite.”
Now, as Jindal heads into his sixth legislative session, beginning Monday, he has never faced such fierce political headwinds.
State courts have nullified his education package at least temporarily, and Jindal must overcome a series of obstacles to carry out his sweeping plan to privatize the state hospital system. Meanwhile, the plan’s chief architect, Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein, resigned last week following revelations that he is under state and federal investigation after intervening in the award of a state contract.
Jindal is under increasing fire on the right from a group of conservative legislators known as Fiscal Hawks who say he plays shell games with how the state spends its money.
Jindal’s plan to revamp the state’s tax system – which he said would be his biggest priority this session – remains barely alive after attacks from the left, the center and the right.
And a poll released Tuesday by Southern Media & Opinion Research, a Baton Rouge-based firm, showed that Jindal – who has won positive ratings from a majority of Louisiana voters throughout his tenure – has become unpopular for the first time. Indeed, he is more unpopular in Louisiana than even President Barack Obama, who lost Louisiana decisively last year to Mitt Romney and now has a 43 percent approval rating.
Two weeks ago, when the Southern Media poll was taken, only 38 percent of likely voters gave Jindal a positive approval rating while 60 percent viewed him negatively. One year ago, the numbers were flipped: Jindal had a 61 percent approval rating and a 36 percent negative rating.
“His second honeymoon is officially over,” Arnold said. “Today he’s running as fast as he can to keep the kite off the ground.”
Jindal’s most immediate task is resurrecting his tax swap, which would abolish $3.6 billion in income and corporate taxes and replace them with higher sales taxes and a tripling of the cigarette tax. In Lake Charles on Monday, he repeated his belief that the plan would create jobs and promote investment.
Only 27 percent of voters polled by Southern Media agreed with that prognosis, while 63 percent opposed the plan. The numbers would probably be worse this week. The survey took place before the Jindal administration caused a firestorm on Thursday by announcing that its plan would require an even higher increase in the state sales tax than previously announced: 2.25 percentage points rather than 1.88 points. Combined with local sales taxes, either figure would average out to the highest in the nation.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Legislative Black Caucus, the House Democratic Caucus, religious leaders from across Louisiana and the Public Affairs Research Council, a centrist think tank in Baton Rouge, have all expressed either outright opposition or serious reservations about the tax plan. Republican lawmakers are withholding their support. One Fiscal Hawk has presented a simpler alternative.
On Monday, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a left-leaning non-profit in Washington, D.C., countered Jindal’s view that his plan would benefit all families by reporting that “the plan would increase taxes on the poorest 60 percent of Louisianans overall, while providing large tax cuts for the best-off Louisiana taxpayers.”
“In the form it’s in, it’s probably not attainable,” said Jeffrey Sadow, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport whose blog regularly praises the governor. “His plan is in trouble.”
Sadow believes that Jindal can salvage a portion of it by compromising. But the governor has lost much of his legislative leverage with the sharp decline in public support. After five years of cuts in state spending on Louisiana’s colleges and universities and its hospital system, voters are slamming Jindal: 77 percent oppose further cuts to health care while 79 percent oppose further cuts to higher education.
“The people are tired of it,” said Bernie Pinsonat, an analyst for Southern Media.
Another finding: 53 percent of voters oppose Jindal’s frequent travel to other states, as he pursues an apparent yearning to secure the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
Kyle Plotkin, Jindal’s communications director, and Sean Lansing, his press secretary, did not respond to a request Tuesday for an interview with the governor.
State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, a strong Jindal supporter, said he thought it was inevitable that a lame-duck governor’s popularity would decline midway through his second term.
But Southern Media’s numbers show that Gov. Mike Foster, at a similar point in his second term, in 2001, enjoyed a 62 percent approval rating.
No Louisiana governor has polled as low as Jindal since Kathleen Blanco sank to 31 percent in March 2006, six months after Hurricane Katrina.
Other numbers in Southern Media’s March 18-20 poll of 600 likely voters offer Jindal no comfort: 49 percent of them gave him a D or F grade as governor. Also: 48 percent said that conditions are getting worse in Louisiana while only 20 percent said they are improving.
“Jindal’s at his lowest ebb,” said Kirby Goidel, a Louisiana State University professor who specializes in politics and the media. “It’s a difficult moment for him. He has to step back and reexamine his approach to governing.”
Goidel, who conducts the annual Louisiana Survey for LSU, said the poor poll results could weaken Jindal.
“People will be more willing to stand up to him than a year ago,” Goidel said.
That’s already happening. Last month, state Rep. Arnold and state Rep. Gene Reynolds of Minden became the first Democrats to join the 30-member Fiscal Hawks.
More evidence of the governor’s vulnerability: two Fiscal Hawks, state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and state Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, announced Monday that they are amending and refilling an earlier lawsuit which charges that Jindal’s 2013 budget was unconstitutional because it used one-time spending for annual expenses. The amended lawsuit contests Jindal’s proposed 2014 budget as well because of the one-time spending.
“People now feel it’s OK to question the governor because the general public is concerned,” Henry said. “People are seeing through his canned responses and ambition-driven policies.”
Said state Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, the Fiscal Hawks’ leader: “One of the hurdles we’ve had in reforming the budget is that the governor has been so popular.” The Southern Media findings “will help the legislative body be more independent. That’s a good thing.”
Even the media seems more aggressive in its coverage of Jindal, said Darryl Gissel, a former executive director of the state Republican Party who has been a Jindal campaign contributor.
“Before, a group would make a statement, Jindal would counter it, and that would be the end,” said Gissel, who now owns extensive residential property in downtown Baton Rouge. “Now there really is follow-up. Reporters are digging into facts and figures to see what’s there.”
The Baton Rouge Advocate won attention Monday with a tough editorial that accused the governor of claiming falsely to be a supporter of higher education in Louisiana.
In the meantime, private hospitals in Lafayette, Shreveport, Monroe and elsewhere have so far failed to accept the Jindal administration’s enticements to begin managing the LSU hospitals. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are questioning the state’s plan for how it would use federal funds for Medicaid spending with the LSU hospitals under private management. Jindal’s 2014 budget depends on receiving federal approval and securing the private hospitals’ approval to manage the public facilities.
“There’s just a lot to do between now and July” when fiscal year 2014 begins, said Fred Cerise, who headed DHH under Blanco and oversaw the LSU hospitals under Jindal until the governor had him removed late last year.
Another Jindal priority this session is to win lawmakers’ approval to expand the state’s education voucher program and to weaken the state’s teacher tenure law. State courts invalidated these measures by ruling that they were unconstitutional. Jindal will need to secure the Legislature’s approval of these measures again if the state Supreme Court upholds state courts.
State Sen. Appel expressed confidence that the Legislature would approve the measures.
“The package is being pushed by education reform and good-government groups,” Appel said.
Can Jindal reverse his fortunes this legislative session?
“He’s still the governor of Louisiana,” Arnold said. “He still has a lot of tools in his toolbox.”