Gov. Bobby Jindal has a plan: Do for the country what he’s done for Louisiana. Cut taxes and cut the government workforce and the economy will bloom, he promises. It’s a message he’s peddling as he lays the groundwork for a presidential run. Indeed, as Jindal is quick to say, private-sector job growth and the economy in Louisiana have outpaced the national average during his tenure as governor. “I’m a fiscal conservative,” he told the influential Conservative Political Action Conference last year, in explaining these successes.
But here’s what Jindal doesn’t say: Louisiana’s budget is hemorrhaging red ink, and it’s getting worse. He inherited a $900 million surplus when he became governor seven years ago, and his administration’s own budget documents now show the state is facing deficits of more than $1 billion for as far as the eye can see. There are no easy solutions today because Jindal has increasingly balanced the budget by resorting to one-time fixes, depleting the state’s reserve funds and taking money meant for other purposes.
“There are all kinds of tricks in the budget,” said Greg Albrecht, the state legislature’s chief economist, a nonpartisan position. Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate has risen from 3.8 percent when Jindal took office, a point below the national average then, to 6.7 percent today—nearly a full point higher than today’s national average. Jindal omits these inconvenient facts when he bashes President Barack Obama and Washington for “bankrupting” the federal government and mismanaging the national economy.
As the son of Indian immigrants who was a Rhodes scholar, Jindal, 43, has stood out as a national GOP star since his 2007 election as chief executive of Louisiana, with an image invariably described as wonky. In 2009, he was chosen to give the GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union address, but his unnatural singsong delivery was mocked. Since then, he’s back to fast talking and reeling off numbers while he courts Republicans outside of Louisiana. A year before the Iowa Republican primary, he has shifted his political emphasis by making an obvious pitch for religious conservatives, highlighting his faith and following up the recent attacks by Islamist extremists in Paris by denouncing supposed Muslim no-go zones in European cities. Some commentators ridiculed him, but Jindal won attention on Fox News and CNN as well as the approval of some conservative pundits.
Yet one topic thus far has garnered little national attention: His economic record in the Bayou State.
Democrats in the state are quick to point to the budget problems. But what’s striking are the harsh critiques from fellow Republicans, who say Jindal’s presidential ambitions and frequent campaign trips outside of Louisiana have taken precedence over managing his home state’s economic affairs. “I’m hoping he will multitask and spend some of his time with us,” said state Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican. “I’m a numbers guy. We have serious, serious problems with our budget. For seven years, we have spent more than we’ve taken in.”
Republican state legislators are particularly scathing in saying Jindal no longer exercises leadership, but they don’t want to go on the record for fear of losing their choice committee assignments or having the governor kill their pet projects. (A governor in Louisiana has so much power that he appoints the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate, along with committee chairmen.) Jim Richardson, an economist at Louisiana State University who sits on a four-member board that determines the state’s available revenue, predicted that next year’s governor—regardless of party—will have to call a special session on the budget, as the first order of business, to clean up what Jindal has left behind.
The deficit for the upcoming year adds up to $1.6 billion, too big to close easily. Jindal will show his hand when he releases his plan for a balanced budget on February 27, amid heightened attention because of his obvious national ambitions.
In a telephone interview from Florida, where he was speaking to a conference of religious CEOs, Jindal blamed the state’s budget woes on factors beyond his control. “The oil price drop has been good for consumers, but it’s had a big impact on our revenue,” Jindal told me.
But that’s not how Republican elected officials and independent budget experts see it. They say that the plunge in oil prices and the subsequent loss of revenue for the state treasury has exacerbated—but did not create—the budget issues. The real cause, according to these sources: Jindal’s aversion to tackling politically tough issues and his tendency to resort to ploys to paper over the problems. And then, of course, there is The Pledge.
In 2003, as a private citizen running for governor (he narrowly lost), Jindal promised to “oppose and veto all efforts to increase taxes.” This was part of the bargain he agreed to when he took the pledge—the shorthand description of the Tax Protection Pledge hawked by Americans for Tax Reform, the group headed by anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist. As governor, he has taken the “no tax” commitment to such lengths that in 2011 he vetoed legislation supported by dozens of Republicans that sought renewal of a 4-cent portion of the state’s 36-cent-per-pack cigarette tax, the country’s third lowest. “His only reason is that he’d taken the crazy position that if you renew a tax or suspend an exemption it was a tax increase,” said state Rep. Harold Ritchie, a Democrat and smoker who sponsored the measure. Lawmakers found a way to approve it without Jindal being able to exercise a veto.
In 2013, Jindal promised to whack a measure that would have raised $1 million for the hearing impaired through a fee on monthly cellphone bills. The amount: 2 cents per month. “I was totally shocked,” said state Rep. Patrick Williams, a Democrat who sponsored the measure.
Jindal boasts about his no-tax stance to Republican audiences throughout the country. “I’ve been very honest and clear with voters,” Jindal said in the interview. “I would not raise taxes. We need to shrink the size of government. We’ve done that.” That is true. Louisiana has 33,000 fewer state workers than when he took office, in large part because he got the legislature to privatize the public hospitals.
Jindal has plenty of defenders in Louisiana. “The majority of voters think they pay enough taxes,” said state Rep. Lenar Whitney, a Republican from south Louisiana who is also the party’s national committeewoman. “I’d rather cut the size of government than raise taxes.” The conservative Tax Foundation ranked Louisiana as having the 46th lowest tax burden as a share of state income. Louisiana also scores at the bottom in education and health care.
The pledge wasn’t an issue when Jindal became governor in 2008 and the state had a healthy budget surplus thanks to the taxes produced by massive federal government and private insurance spending following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. The state legislature cut income taxes for higher-end earners by a total of about $700 million per year. Jindal was not an initial supporter, perhaps because of warnings that the surplus would not last as the outside spending tapered off. He went along with the plan, though, and now takes credit for it.
When the national recession hit, Louisiana lost about $1 billion in revenue as consumers and companies spent less. That forced Jindal and the state legislature to take a sharp knife to a state budget in which much funding—such as for K-12 schools and additional pay for firefighters and police—is protected constitutionally and thus invulnerable to drastic cuts. Refusing to raise revenues to cover the shortfall, Jindal instead turned his sights on cutting health care for the poor and slicing funding for the state’s public colleges and universities.
It was not enough. He then shaved another $341 million in the middle of the 2009 budget cycle to avoid ending the year with a deficit. Jindal—buoyed by the tax cuts, his anti-government rhetoric, a growing state economy and his opposition to abortion—won reelection in 2011 with 65 percent of the vote.