Less than three weeks before the annual legislative session begins, Gov. Bobby Jindal has shown few signs of wanting to use his remaining political capital to tackle any of the major problems that bedevil the state.
Facing his next-to-last session and with his popularity sagging, Jindal’s ability to get things done has waned, political insiders said, adding that spending more and more time out of Louisiana lately trying to raise his national standing among influential Republicans distracts him from his duties here.
Asked to identify the governor’s legislative agenda, state Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, replied: “You can add me to the list of those who don’t know. I anticipate being brought into the discussion when it involves any of my committees.”
Robideaux chairs the Ways and Means Committee, which considers tax legislation, and is vice chair of the joint legislative committee that appropriates money for state construction projects.
Last year, when Jindal was attempting to rewrite the state’s tax system by eliminating income taxes, he began meeting with Robideaux and other key legislators in December.
This year, among the 20 senior legislators contacted by The Lens, the only ones who said they have met with Jindal recently were Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego; House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles; Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; and House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro.
The legislative session begins March 10 and ends June 2.
“My discussions have been with him about workforce development,” Kleckley said, referring to a plan by the governor to make sure that the state’s colleges and universities — as well as private companies and trade unions — are organized to prepare workers for an anticipated job boom, particularly south of the I-10 corridor.
Alario said Jindal’s top priority is for the Legislature to approve a $40 million fund for the state’s colleges and universities to beef up training for high-paying jobs in high demand — a component of workforce development.
Asked to identify the governor’s other priorities this year, Kleckley said, “I would suggest you call him and his team.”
Kyle Plotkin, the governor’s communications director, did not answer two emails requesting an interview with the governor. (Jindal announced Tuesday that Plotkin will become his new chief of staff, replacing Paul Rainwater, who is resigning effective March 3 “to pursue opportunities in the private sector.”)
After this article was first published, Jindal’s deputy communications director, Mike Reed, offered this statement:
Our top priority will be working with the Legislature to pass a balanced budget that not only funds the operations of state government without raising taxes, but also makes critical investments in education and workforce development. Over the next few years, Louisiana will experience the biggest manufacturing expansion on record since the 60’s and 70’s. Therefore, our biggest challenge is ensuring that we can develop the skilled workforce to meet the demands of the booming job market. That is why we have proposed increased funding for higher education along with a new higher education workforce incentive initiative of $40 million. Among the many other initiatives in our proposed budget, we are also prioritizing increased funding for K-12 education.
Jindal traveled to Bossier Parish on Tuesday to announce a private company’s plans to create 800 jobs within four years at a technology center. It was the latest in a series of stops around Louisiana — including a much-touted “64-parish tour” — to announce business investments or to highlight state government spending on a road or some other infrastructure project. Critics deride them as photo ops. Jindal did not meet with state lawmakers to discuss upcoming legislation.
The governor also has stepped up his travel outside of Louisiana to speak to Republican interest groups and to meet with potential campaign donors, in what has all the hallmarks of a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination or a cabinet appointment.
Last week, he spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library in California, warning of a liberal assault on religious freedom – a pet theme among conservatives. In mid-March, he will give the keynote address at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in New Hampshire, traditionally the first primary state, following the Iowa caucuses.
Jindal’s frequent out-of-state travel has prompted calls for him to focus more on the needs of a state that continues to lag in many national rankings.
Past governors typically began laying the groundwork for their legislative agenda months in advance, by meeting with influential civic and constituent groups around the state, as well as newspaper editorial boards and key legislators.
Jindal himself took this approach in 2012 when he wanted the Legislature to overhaul the state’s retirement and education systems and again in 2013 when he tried to revamp the tax system.
The results were at best mixed. Legislators approved part of his retirement plan — only to see it nullified by the state Supreme Court — and most of his education package, before a judge struck down its key components. Lawmakers forced Jindal to abandon his tax plan altogether.
This year, “based on what we’ve all heard, it’ll be a light agenda,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “I am a little surprised we don’t have more out of the governor’s office about the session.”
Alario said he has met three times with Jindal in recent weeks while Kleckley said he has had five get-togethers.
“I don’t need a whole lot of coaching from him,” Alario said.
“Every time I’ve wanted to meet with him, he’s been available,” Kleckley said.
Fannin and Donahue each said he has met with Jindal once, to discuss the governor’s proposed budget just before its recent release.
“The Legislature has to take the budget and see how it fits with our priorities,” Donahue said.
“It’s our budget now,” Fannin said.
Other key lawmakers remain in the dark about Jindal’s plans.
“I haven’t been contacted by the governor or any of his people about any specific items that are part of his legislative agenda,” said state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, who is the speaker pro tem and is typically involved in any major issue involving his hometown.
State Senate President pro tem Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, also has had no contact with the governor about his agenda.
Neither state Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, nor state Rep. Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria — who chair the committees that will hear the proposed legislation for workforce development — has heard from the governor, although each has discussed the issue with senior aides.
“We don’t see anything controversial,” Crowe said.
Jindal announced in January that he would like the Legislature to spend $40 million on what he is calling it the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund – or WISE Fund. It is one of several increases he is seeking in the state’s $25 billion budget.
Many lawmakers hear that the governor will push to make it harder for trial lawyers to win judgments for clients injured on the job or in accidents. They also expect him to try to kill a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which alleges that oil, gas and pipeline companies caused much of the coastal erosion and that they must pay billions to restore it. Conservative lawmakers, in particular, believe that Louisiana’s tort laws drive up business costs by favoring trial lawyers and that the Flood Protection Authority’s lawsuit will drive away oil and gas companies.
But state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, who chairs the Civil Law and Procedure Committee, which would consider any proposed tort legislation, said he has yet to hear from the governor or his senior aides. Nor has state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, who chairs the corresponding Senate Committee, known as Judiciary A.
“There are still a bunch of ideas that are percolating,” said Abramson, adding that he expects the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry — the state’s foremost business lobby — to push for the changes.
To be sure, legislators are not entirely surprised that Jindal has not sought them out. The governor has been increasingly detached from them.
Jindal is in his seventh year as governor, and attention is shifting to who will succeed him. In the meantime, his popularity has fallen below 50 percent. Polls show voter dissatisfaction with his out-of-state travels and with his deep cuts in support for state colleges and universities, K-12 public schools and the state’s hospital system.
The latest independent poll, by Southern Media & Opinion Research in November, showed that only 42 percent of voters approved of Jindal’s job performance while 55 percent disapproved. Three Republicans eyeing his job – Treasurer John Kennedy, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and U.S. Sen. David Vitter – all got higher ratings than Jindal.
“He doesn’t have a lot of support to get a lot of heavy lifting done on controversial issues,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, who is also running for governor.
Bernie Pinsonat agrees with Edwards.
“He’s probably ready to end controversy during the next two years,” said Pinsonat, a campaign consultant at Southern Media. “He’s following the tried-and-true script by governors in their seventh year. New initiatives are probably beyond his reach.”
A governor can do heavy lifting in his seventh year, however.
Jindal got his start in politics thanks to Mike Foster, the state’s last Republican governor. While meeting with legislators before his seventh legislative session, in 2002, Foster groused about the annual ritual of having to suspend the law that exempted food, drugs and utilities from the state sales tax, said then-state Rep. Vic Stelly, R-Lake Charles. Foster said he had to use his political capital every year to win enough votes to impose the taxes – taxes that hit the poor the hardest. “Fellas, there has to be a better way to run a railroad,” Foster said, according to Stelly.
Stelly, in fact, had a plan to eliminate those sales taxes and make up the lost revenue by raising income taxes on higher income people. “I like Vic’s plan, but it doesn’t have a chance to pass,” Foster told the group. It would be a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds approval by the Legislature and then a majority vote by the state’s residents.
The measure won enough support to pass the House. Foster, who enjoyed a 65 percent job approval rating, according to Southern Media, then muscled it through the Senate.
Next, he raised money for his political action committee, Louisiana Reform, to broadcast some $300,000 of TV and radio ads that pitched the plan to voters. It passed narrowly in November 2002.
“Once we got rolling, he was very instrumental,” Stelly said.
In 2008, the Legislature repealed the tax increases after complaints, particularly from higher-income taxpayers. Jindal initially opposed the repeal but then flipped and supported it in the face of strong legislative pressure.
This article has been updated to include comment by a Jindal administration spokesman who responded to The Lens after it was first published.
*Correction: This story originally misstated the name of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. (Feb. 20, 2014)