Wisconsin and Louisiana may not have much in common, but their governors have traveled eerily similar paths. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin made history Tuesday when he survived a recall challenge by a comfortable margin.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is also the target of a recall effort because of his education reforms enacted at the recent legislative session, but it’s unlikely the movement will succeed.
One of the first things Walker did when he took office in 2011 was to take away union rights of most public workers and require them to pay more for their health insurance and retirement benefits. It was his way of trying to handle a $3.6 billion budget shortfall, but it created a firestorm among those workers who collected enough signatures to force the recall.
Jindal overhauled the state’s ethics system after first taking office in 2008, and it was his signature calling card for the next four years. He also built up a huge public following when he crisscrossed the state preaching his reform message. However, during the last year of his first term he suffered a number of legislative defeats, and was determined it wouldn’t happen again
Using the public support he had generated, Jindal backed legislators in the 2011 statewide elections and helped Republicans take control of both houses of the Legislature. His tactics paid dividends early in this year’s session when the GOP lawmakers quickly helped the governor enact an education reform program that is still causing heartache among teacher unions.
The unions in Louisiana were in the forefront of the fight against Jindal’s education reform program, and they had help from the Legislature’s Democratic Caucus. Both lost in their efforts to derail the changes proposed by the governor.
Jindal, once again, was touted as vice presidential material because of the education reforms that his national boosters probably know little about.
Like Gov. Walker, Jindal decided it was also a good time to take on public employees and reform the state’s four major retirement systems that are almost $19 billion in debt. He was able to get a cash balance retirement system passed for new employees, but lost efforts to increase the retirement age, raise employee retirement contributions and establish a different formula for computing pension benefits.
Three of the public employee retirement systems took on Jindal when his reform effort surfaced later in the session, and they were more successful. Continuous rewrites of the governor’s legislation failed to convince enough legislators it was the way to go, so the cash balance plan was the only major proposal that survived.
You would think Jindal would be disappointed about his losses, but he wears what country music singer John Conlee calls “Rose-Colored Glasses” that help him always see things in a positive way. The governor, for example, called passage of the cash balance plan “the most important piece of our reform package … .”
Despite his retirement setbacks, Jindal called the recent session “the most successful and significant session since I’ve been governor.” He said the people of Louisiana are the big winners.
Now, let’s go back to Gov. Walker and see where Jindal may go from here.
Walker, in a victory speech to his supporters, said, “Tonight, we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions. But now it is time to move on and move forward in Wisconsin.”
The governor even sounded like Jindal when he said a number of times, “We’re headed in the right direction. We’re turning things around. We’re moving Wisconsin forward.”
David Lauter in a copyrighted story in the Los Angeles Times said, “Gov. Scott Walker already had become a national hero to conservatives for his willingness to take on the state’s powerful public employee unions. His victory — making him the only governor in U.S. history to survive a recall — will increase his stature even further…”
Mitt Romney, the expected GOP nominee for president, said Walker’s victory “will echo beyond the borders of Wisconsin.”
A University of California-San Diego associate politics professor, told the Reuters news agency, “The unions tried to take a stand here and when you stake everything on one election and lose, politicians around the country will not be afraid to take on the unions.”
I’d be surprised if Jindal doesn’t seize the moment and use events in Wisconsin as justification for his reform efforts and as a springboard to even bolder action at future sessions.
Democrats, the unions and retirement officials aren’t going to lie down and play dead. They made that clear after the legislative session ended Monday. But Jindal is just as determined, and he still has public support and backing from business, industry and good government advocates who think he’s on the right track.
Walker was the big winner in Wisconsin, but Jindal is definitely going to benefit from some of the political fallout.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].