Opinion
 

Oh, brother, where art thou? Is state income tax really why Nikesh Jindal split?

Getting "personal" failed to swing Legislature Jindal's way.

DonKeyHotey/flickr

Getting "personal" failed to swing Legislature.

Gov. Bobby Jindal sensed the political headwinds when he delivered his April 8 address to the Republican-majority Legislature. Perhaps that’s why he veered off-script. His prepared remarks called for an income-tax repeal, and culminated with a quote from former President Ronald Reagan. But as he stood before the lawmakers, Jindal jettisoned the Gipper and “got personal” instead.

He recounted a joyful Easter visit with his younger brother’s family. By way of background, he explained that Nikesh had grown up in Baton Rouge but, like too many Louisianans, had left the state to pursue better job opportunities. We need to create better jobs here, so our extended family will return home, Jindal argued; “That is why it is so important we get rid of those income taxes.”

Members of the Legislature politely applauded, but they were unconvinced. Not long afterwards the solons shelved all bills pertaining to an income tax repeal. In so doing, they nixed Jindal’s sole priority for the legislative session and exposed the lame-duck governor’s lack of political leverage.

So, the state income tax stays in place for another two years, and presumably Nikesh Jindal won’t be moving back home any time soon.

Family resonates in Louisiana, so Jindal was smart to substitute the story about his brother for the Reagan quote. Subsequent events suggest that, either way, it would not have mattered. The political cake was already baked. But let’s pretend for a second that Jindal’s story about his brother actually changed some minds and reversed the momentum against his tax-repeal idea. Surely that’s the response he was hoping for when he inserted the anecdote into the speech. And if, say, he had been able to push through an income-tax repeal against stiff opposition, Jindal’s off-the-cuff story about his brother would have the makings of a significant political moment, perhaps even a legislative legend.

If that happened, the media no doubt would have followed up on the brother angle. Consider: A human interest detail that adds a surprise chapter to the legislative session and the Jindal saga — that’s manna from headline heaven! The problem is, even a cursory check shows the story doesn’t add up. It seems Jindal’s brother majored in economics at Dartmouth and has written on global finance. So he’s a smart guy. Yet, for some reason he chooses to live in the Washington, D.C., area, where the state income tax rates are comparable to those in Louisiana.  That inconvenient fact doesn’t jibe with Jindal’s thesis. In fact, many might think his brother’s example totally undercuts his simplistic formula that low income taxes create  jobs and “brain gain.”

It’s odd. Why is it that so often, when you peel just one layer off Jindal’s rhetoric, there’s almost always serious grounds for skepticism?

Everyone agrees Jindal is ambitious, and nearly everyone agrees he’s unpopular right now. But Jindal’s sagging favorability rating is not purely a function of his naked ambition. Some Democrats simply disagree with Jindal’s principles. They dislike his budget cuts and privatization schemes. They actually prefer it when he’s travelling around and making speeches in other states, where he can do less damage to this one. Many Republicans, on the other hand, believe Jindal doesn’t hold to his principles. They don’t believe his previous reform efforts have delivered as promised. (See, for example, his government transparency legislation). They’re troubled by his use of smoke and mirrors to balance the budget.

So it seems that legislative leaders from ordinarily irreconcilable camps have come to a consensus, albeit for different reasons: The governor is full of bunk. A good chunk of rank-and-file lawmakers apparently feel that way, too.

In his speech to the Legislature, Jindal basically apologized for moving too fast with his tax idea, implying that he was just too smart and too quick for the rest of us. In the next breath he junked his tax swap scheme altogether, the idea he’d been peddling for months. Come up with any old income-tax repeal, he beseeched any lawmakers still listening — don’t worry, I’ll sign it! Then, sensing all this was still insufficient, he broke character, went off-script and told the personal story about his brother.

None of this rhetorical — and somewhat desperate — thrashing around moved the needle at all. The Legislature unceremoniously dumped Jindal’s top priority before the media had a chance to fact-check the yarn about his brother.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen to strong governors.

The broad anti-Jindal alliance in the Legislature developed at a key moment and revealed Jindal’s weakness. It will have consequences for his designs on the White House in 2016, a topic that is sure to inspire continuing punditry. But for now it’s like a political Rorschach test. Democrats want to think Jindal’s defeat is due to his budget cuts, and Republicans want to think it’s because the public wants real reform and Jindal hasn’t delivered. It’s a fragile alliance of convenience that won’t last long, and I’m sure members of the alliance understand that.

Unfortunately, I had the far-fetched hope that this tax debate would bring a little ideological clarity to state politics. I wanted markers to be laid down for future collection. But the Legislature extinguished Jindal’s tax fever before we could have an earnest, in-depth debate on the matter. Sure, some Democrats complained about the regressiveness of the heavy reliance on sales taxes, and some Republicans said they agreed in principle but thought Jindal’s plan was too rushed and haphazard. Perhaps they were both correct, but the public didn’t get the conversation it needed, and state leaders weren’t forced to make the uncomfortable votes that reveal their true colors.

In the short term, that’s a desirable outcome; but rest assured, we will have this debate again. And I’m sure a lot of the same tax arguments will be resurrected. Next time they might come from a first-term governor who is not as unpopular as Jindal is now. He won’t be facing a weird bipartisan alliance that thinks he’s full of hooey. Will that make a  difference?

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