Jindal’s Stacking The Deck For This Legislative Session

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed $25.5 billion state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 appears to be Take 2 of Act 1, Scene 1. The governor didn’t fare well in many respects when the current budget was forged last spring. Now, he is coming back with a repeat performance as a director who has a much stronger role in the production.

Jindal demonstrated how influential a Louisiana governor can be when he strongly backed and helped elect friendlier members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. BESE has already responded by approving the appointment of John White, the governor’s hand-picked candidate, as state superintendent of education.

No governor in Louisiana history has ever endorsed as many legislators as Jindal did during last fall’s elections. He backed 27 senators and 65 House members, or 92 of the 144 state legislators. Of those, 17 senators and 39 representatives were unopposed, and that was surprising since they were already elected. The governor also contributed $2,500 to their campaigns.

Jindal didn’t have any problem selecting the legislative leadership he wanted. He picked Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, to become president of the Senate and Rep. Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, to be speaker of the House.

The real test of whether the endorsements and hand-picked leadership will pay dividends remains to be seen, but we will soon have our answers. The Legislature convenes for its 2012 session on March 12, and Jindal is coming back with some of his controversial proposals that failed last year.

Lawmakers will be asked again, for example, to increase state employee retirement contributions from 8 to 11 percent. Last year, House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, said the increase was a tax requiring two-thirds approval, a difficult hurdle that killed the bill.

Jindal isn’t expected to face that obstacle this time around. However, some legislators will oppose the increase and don’t like using the money in the general fund rather than paying down retirement debt that totals nearly $19 billion.

The governor ran into a storm of opposition last year when he proposed selling prisons in Allen, Avoyelles and Winn parishes. Sale of the Avoyelles Correctional Center at Cottonport is back on the table for the upcoming session. Rep. Robert Johnson of Marksville represents that area and was one of the lawmakers Jindal tried to defeat last year.

“I can’t believe he’s trying this again …,” Johnson said.

State employees were up in arms last year when Jindal wanted to sell the Office of Group Benefits that manages their health insurance plan. The governor has come back with a proposal to hire a private company to manage the plan. That would reduce the number of jobs at OGB from 327 to 177.

The News-Star of Monroe said workers who are covered by the health care plan “prefer to have ‘one of our own’ handling health care insurance claims than some faceless entity possibly in some overseas sweat house with instructions to reject claims the first two times they are filed …”

Jindal is promoting the proposed budget as one that “protects higher education funding, fundamentally transforms Louisiana’s K-12 education system, reforms the state’s pension system, expands health care services and does not raise taxes.” The reduction of 6,000 full-time state jobs and 16,000 since the governor took office in 2008 is another selling point.

Critics are quick to point out that some of the savings and job reductions are based on actions not yet approved by the Legislature. Higher education isn’t being cut, but that won’t be true unless tuition is increased at colleges and universities. And the legislative auditor said lawmakers and the public aren’t getting a true picture of the number of state employees in budget documents.

The most eye-opening comment from the auditor’s report deals with salaries. The Advocate of Baton Rouge reported that while the number of state employees dropped to 83,533 as of June 30, 2011, the total actual rate of pay for executive branch agencies increased by over $297 million over a five-year period. And the vast majority of the 6,000 jobs being eliminated aren’t those high-end positions.

An Advocate reader said of Jindal, “He’s going after the rank-and-file because they are the low-hanging fruit.”

Another said, “What did you expect? You want ‘small government’? Well, this is what it looks like.”

I have a feeling Jindal is going to get almost everything he wants in the upcoming session. He has laid all the necessary groundwork to make it happen. Higher education officials, who haven’t been treated well in previous budgets, have already fallen in line. And many legislators are expected to follow suit.

Much of what the governor wants to do is worth trying. And we have only scratched the surface with the issues mentioned here. What bothers some legislators and the people targeted by his budget is Jindal’s insistence that, “It’s my way or the highway.” That makes life awfully difficult for those who might disagree or who believe compromise might be the better alternative.

I can hardly wait to see how “Act 1, Scene 1, Take 2” unfolds.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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