If you live long enough and study history, you understand the political pendulum swings from one side to the other over the years. Louisiana has experienced many of those shifts for nearly a century.
The state is currently in one of those major shifts. Gov. Bobby Jindal has thrown the full weight of his office behind drastic overhaul of the state’s education and retirement systems. As you would expect, the reforms he is pushing haven’t been well-received in all quarters.
Those of us who come to Baton Rouge once a year during legislative sessions — legislators, lobbyists, special interest groups and journalists — occasionally end up in a political cocoon. We tend to become insulated from the outside world, and forget the political realities of life.
The reality is that voters eventually decide the course of the state’s political future. Legislators, lobbyists, special interest groups and journalists are only the instruments through which the voting public operates.
Those who forget that reality are often in for a rude awakening when the voters decide to change directions. They can become a vibrant political force.
Jindal has been preaching fiscal conservatism and radical change in the state’s political structure for the last four years in every nook and cranny of this state. For better or worse, a majority of voters have bought into the magic elixir he has been selling.
Will his cure-all fix all of the ills in our education and retirement systems? Only time will answer that question, but it’s obvious a majority of the voters back home seem to think Jindal has the right solutions.
Let’s go back to the 1920’s in Louisiana. Business groups in New Orleans, wealthy agricultural interests and corporations were calling all the shots. The citizens of Louisiana had little voice in their everyday lives.
Then, along came Huey Pierce Long who preached another gospel they understood. He promised the people things were going to change and their lives would be better if they bought his political medicine.
Long took on the big corporations and bullied the Legislature until it delivered better roads, free textbooks, free school lunches, charity hospitals and a homestead exemption that guaranteed most of them wouldn’t have to pay property taxes.
Unfortunately, Long’s unlimited power and ruthlessness proved to be his undoing that led to the end of his reign. And those who followed him were caught up in some of the biggest scandals this state has ever seen.
Gov. Sam Jones of Lake Charles, a reformer, was elected in 1940 and immediately began to restore the confidence citizens had lost in their state government. Jones served only one term, and he wouldn’t be the first reformer who learned that Louisiana voters can take only small doses of change at a time.
Earl Long and Jimmie Davis then dominated state politics before reformer Robert Kennon was elected governor in 1951. Kennon cleaned up illegal gambling that was rampant in the state, but voters were ready to try Long and Davis again.
John J. McKeithen took the reins in 1964. Although he was a Long protege, he started a swing back to the pro-business side. McKeithen made it fashionable to court industry again.
Edwin W. Edwards stole the political scene in 1971, and would become the state’s only four-term governor. He, like Huey Long, promised prosperity and the voters liked what he was selling.
Edwards was a reformer in his first term and supported Speaker of the House E.L. “Bubba” Henry’s reshaping of the legislative process that has become one of the country’s most efficient lawmaking branches.
Dave Treen became the state’s first Republican governor in the 20th century in 1980. He and Edwards brought blacks into the government mainstream during their terms, and they are taking on bigger roles in the state’s political system.
Unfortunately, Edwards ended up in prison and Buddy Roemer, Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco brought a new and welcome freshness to Louisiana politics. Jindal lost to Blanco in 2004, but he came back strong in 2008 and built on that strength for four years.
Is Jindal, like some of our other governors, going too far too fast? It’s still too early to tell. However, I am seeing the governor’s team giving some ground after he achieved education reform with little difficulty.
Resistance to Jindal’s retirement overhaul has resulted in his legislation currently undergoing its third transition.
The chairmen of the House and Senate retirement committees said the changes being considered are in response to concerns voiced by the retirement systems and state employees.
Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, chairman of the Senate committee, was asked about the rewriting and amending process.
“I think you are going to like what you see,” he said Tuesday.
If the Jindal administration is listening, that’s a good sign and a change in its recent methods of operation. Maybe it’s not a major shift, but the political pendulum is swinging in a slightly different direction. You can push the voters only so far, and apparently they are having some second thoughts, particularly those who are affected by the retirement changes and their families.
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].