Jindal’s Messaging Isn’t Good Enough, And It Jeopardizes Next Year’s Session

That’s our takeaway from the results of Southern Media and Opinion Research’s latest poll on Louisiana public opinion, released this morning…

Additional budget cuts unwanted
The survey shows 68 percent of respondents don’t want additional cuts to the state’s operating budget. Forty-three percent say they’ve been impacted by the spending cuts.

Two thirds said they were aware of cuts to the state’s charity hospital system, and 89 percent said they’re somewhat or very concerned about them. When asked whether the charity system can still deliver the same quality of patient care, 79 percent said no. Eighty percent said Louisiana residents would lose access to health care through the charity system.

Political impacts of budget cuts
Budget reductions, especially those to the charity hospital system – one of the state’s most treasured government institutions – are pushing white Democrats away from Republicans who control the Legislature and most statewide elected offices. Additional cuts could reverse the success Republicans have seen in attracting white Democrats to vote for them.

Forty-one percent of respondents said they most often agree with the actions of the Republican Party. While 49 percent of respondents were registered Democrats, only 37 percent said they agree with actions of the Democratic Party. Government reform and spending cuts are historically popular, though that can’t be said of the charity hospital system. Most voters, even the wealthiest, said they’re concerned those cuts will affect the quality of health care that charity hospitals provide.

Jindal’s job ratings
Over the past five years, Gov. Bobby Jindal has received high job performance ratings from Republicans and most white Democrats. The latest survey shows that while Jindal still gets high ratings from 78 percent of Republicans, 63 percent of Democrats rate his performance as “not so good” or “poor.”

Overall, he has a positive job rating of 51 percent compared to a 45 percent negative rating. That compares with a 61 percent approval last spring and 64 percent approval a year ago. The latest survey likely reflects dissatisfaction over the administration’s budget cuts, education reforms opposed by teachers and attempts to reform state employee retirement systems and privatize state prisons. Forty-three percent of respondents said this year’s budget cuts have negatively impacted their families, including 36 percent among Republicans.

Education reforms
Asked about this year’s education reforms, 26 percent of respondents voiced support compared to 39 percent opposed, while 35 percent were undecided. When asked about specific measures, however, respondents favored several, including increased teacher accountability, higher standards for teachers becoming tenured and giving school principals more control. On the issue of school vouchers, 54 percent were opposed.

Legislative independence
While Jindal’s popularity fell with residents’ displeasure over budget cuts, it’s not surprising that 69 percent of respondents said the Legislature should be more independent from the governor.

Big salaries for state employees
The survey showed that salaries for political appointees and state executives are becoming a hot button issue, especially against the backdrop of significant cuts to the charity hospital system. Eighty-six percent of respondents said that salaries over $175,000 are excessive or not justified. Many residents are questioning how state government can afford these salaries in light of cuts to health care and higher education. The results hint at how the issue of high salaries for political appointees could play a role in the 2015 governor’s race.

National politics
The survey shows President Barack Obama remains unpopular with most Louisiana voters, though the 2012 election may not be as lopsided as 2008. When respondents were asked which political party they prefer to control Congress, the results were virtually even between Democrats and Republicans.

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has the highest job performance of any statewide elected official. While this bodes well for her heading into a 2014 reelection bid, the survey shows that her vote for President Obama’s health care reform could be a major obstacle. In addition, a Republican challenger could benefit from a lower turnout, since 2014 falls outside the presidential cycle.

Respondents were evenly divided on Jindal’s decision to not participate in the Affordable Care Act. The results of this survey question illustrates why the governor is losing support among white Democrats, since 58 percent of those respondents said they disagree with his decision.

By a slight majority, respondents said they opposed Louisiana governors getting involved in national politics. About 63 percent of Republicans support governors’ involvement, while 61 percent of Democrats are opposed.

Eliminating tax exemptions
Most respondents said they favor eliminating tax exemptions to increase state revenue. The result is not surprising, considering attitudes toward additional budget cuts.

Respondents generally rated their parish tax assessor favorably. When asked how much of the property in their own parish is valued below its actual worth, 56 percent said “most” or “some.” Only 31 percent said they knew whether property assessments were available online.

There’s a lot to unpack in these results, though what does come through is a sense of drift from the Jindal administration.

The typical reaction to that drift is that Jindal is causing it by hitting the campaign trail for Mitt Romney. He’s neglecting his job by doing so, goes that narrative, and the state is burning/drowning/sinking/whatever because the governor is stumping in Iowa or Ohio.

This is, of course, asinine. Jindal has a laptop computer and a cell phone with him wherever he goes, and the state’s business is still getting done. And besides, Jindal can make a fantastic, and persuasive, case that helping to get Barack Obama out of office is the absolute best thing he can do to help Louisiana – whether we’re talking about health care, economics, energy, international trade or any number of other issues the president has been detrimental to our state on.

But what isn’t happening, regardless of where Jindal might be on a given day, is a successful effort to win the messaging war. And justifying his stumping for Romney is only a small part of that.

This line is a great example. The survey notes that government reform and budget cuts are historically popular, but then says…

The survey shows 68 percent of respondents don’t want additional cuts to the state’s operating budget.

Louisiana’s budget is $25 billion. It hasn’t been gutted by any stretch of the imagination. Even higher education, which we’re told has been practically destroyed under Jindal, is simply back to funding levels akin to what they were before the Katrina-recovery-fueled orgy of state spending the colleges stupidly treated as a permanent reality rather than a temporary windfall.

Jindal’s camp had an opportunity, and still has an opportunity, to make the case that the public’s perception of the current budget as shaved to the bone is dead wrong. He has the opportunity to present the public with a vision of a slimmed-down government that looks like a lot of the other states out there which are more efficiently run than Louisiana is.

Florida has 12 public four-year universities; Louisiana has 14. Florida’s population is more than four times that of Louisiana. And unlike the tiny, struggling Louisiana colleges like LSU-Alexandria, LSU-Shreveport, McNeese State, Nicholls State and others with enrollments under 10,000 and graduation rates below 40 percent Florida runs a much better system. The enrollment at those 12 public schools in Florida isn’t 4,000, 5,000 or 8,000 like it is at the majority of Louisiana’s public colleges. With the exception of the New College of Florida in Sarasota, which is a small school (enrollment of 787) by design, and Florida Tech (enrollment of 1,268) in Lakeland, which is basically a startup having begun in 1988, every other campus in that state has at least 11,800 students – and six of the 10 (Florida, Florida State, Florida Atlantic, Central Florida, South Florida and Florida International) have enrollments higher than LSU does.

And graduation rates in Florida are far, far higher than they are in Louisiana.

Nobody even mentions this. Instead, all we hear is how LSU has been gutted by budget cuts and how the state’s smaller universities rest on a precipice. And the perception that Jindal is somehow hostile to education as a result has begun to harden.

This is a messaging problem. Jindal has a good argument to make, and at times he’s made it. Jindal has said that Louisiana’s awful public-college graduation rates indicate that we’re not getting a good bang for our buck in higher education spending. But he doesn’t say it enough, and he’s not forceful enough to make that case. Jindal went after SUNO in 2011, and was right in doing so – SUNO has the worst graduation rate of any public four-year college in America. But when he wasn’t able to carry through that fight in the 2011 legislative session he gave up on the idea of closing it or merging it with UNO.

And if you can’t get rid of SUNO, you won’t be able to consolidate a system which drains needed resources away from the schools the state depends on for actual results.

Louisiana has three public colleges with six-year graduation rates above 40 percent, which is a number indicative of actual education at work – LSU, which is the only one of the state’s public colleges above 50 percent (LSU is at 61 percent), Louisiana Tech and UL-Lafayette. Every other state college is a putrid 35 percent or below.

Budget cuts in this realm are a no-brainer. The state shouldn’t be wasting dollars on schools which can’t graduate more than a third of their students in six years. Those dollars should be re-routed to LSU, Louisiana Tech and ULL, where they can actually go toward educating kids, or to the community colleges in the state which can produce two-year graduates with marketable skills. Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing academically-marginal high school graduates who’ll get drunk while playing at being students at Nicholls State for a couple of years.

Jindal shouldn’t phrase it that way, of course. But what he should be doing is pressing the fact that we don’t have the money to operate public universities every fifty miles, and we have to prioritize our spending.

That goes for hospitals as well. Nobody else operates state-run charity hospitals like Louisiana does, and we can’t afford it.

But if you just cut the budget for the local hospital, let’s say, in a mid-year fashion, you’re not going to have any support from anybody. The local legislator might behind the scenes support the budget cut because he knows the state doesn’t have the money to spend even in his district, and that local legislator might silently thank Jindal for falling on that sword and thus protecting him from the fallout of that cut. But when Jindal just announces a budget cut to the local hospital, regardless of whether it’s justified he’s going to lose political capital by doing it. The local paper will trash the move. The local hospital administrator will trash the move. The board which governs the hospitals, or at least the members of that board who aren’t hand-picked by Jindal, will be on TV trashing the decision and saying it’s the end of the hospital thanks to Jindal. Emotion will reign and rationality will fall.

You can get by with this if you’ve won re-election and it’ll be a long time before you run again. But when it comes to things like party-building or consensus-building, to just do controversial things unilaterally out of the blue will erode support for not only your job approval but also for your agenda. It will give your political opponents strength.

Jindal has what sounds like a fairly ambitious agenda in store for next year, though it won’t be as contentious as his education reform/pension reform package was this year. But he’s looking into a reform of higher education governance, a restructuring of the tax code, collective bargaining reform among the public sector unions and a number of other things.

And if the state’s legislators are concerned that they’ve hitched themselves to a runaway train, and Jindal lacks public support for his agenda, they might well decide to punt on that agenda.

You can’t offset that erosion with ribbon-cutting announcements – even if Jindal has some great ones on tap.

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