Perhaps Gov. Bobby Jindal has bitten off more than he could chew. Or maybe people have assumed the wrong agenda for him all along.
With criticism from a number of corners, some of it with merit, much of it driven by political calculation, over his tax swap plan that essentially replaces income taxes with (increasingly) higher and broader sales taxation that simplifies the system which together produce greater economic growth, chances are fading that it will make its way into law as he intends it. They are reduced further by distracting sideshows left over from previous bold initiatives of the past year – attempts to have declared the ways in which education reform were enacted unconstitutional and the restructuring of health care delivery with the backdrop of ruinous federal policy, and in this area an investigation apparently into one of the largest contracts let by the state. So much so far so fast may mean some of it gets left behind for the lack of enough political resources to get it into law.
The prevailing assumption, often explicated in cynical and condescending tones, is that Jindal’s public policy is driven primarily by a desire to achieve higher office. Those with little understanding of the philosophy behind his general policy prescriptions – privatizing state functions where it’s best to do so, improving delivery where they should remain operated by the state, or using both approaches by encouraging private provision to compete with and improve public sector delivery, and all against a backdrop of fiscal policy designed to get government out of the way to unleash the fruits of individual autonomy – assign the specific policies from this as props solely created to further political ambitions. This entirely misunderstands.
Ironically, ideological opponents Republican Jindal and Democrat Pres. Barack Obama have very much in common. Both seek to transform fundamentally the political environments in which they operate. Obama has tried to impose a conception and governance of society alien to the American political culture, one that at a theoretical level has been invalidated by the lessons of history and experience and by the data. Similarly, while Jindal’s vision is much more congruent with the national political culture, it runs somewhat counter to Louisiana’s state political culture, infested with the populist delusion the principles of which reliance upon the munificence of the state and claiming the resources of others without justifiable desert have more in common with Obama’s faith.
As long as Jindal did not challenge directly these revanchist tenets, he was moderately successful. A cautious reformer in the first three-quarters of his first term, in retrospect now it may be understood that he sought mainly technocratic improvements in government performance until the year of his reelection because he did not have the majorities needed in the policy-making forums of the Legislature and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which appeared only by 2011 and 2012, respectively. Since then, he has become far bolder, so much so that he has started to encounter inertial dampening to his political career.
So if his tax swap idea falls through, unable to capture the two-thirds vote needed to succeed in full, no doubt a number of the chattering class will evaluate the retreat as a defeat on the road to bigger and better things for him, pontificating that these ideas were thrown out there to further his ambitions thereby with little regard to their consequences, that it was the proselytizing of the ideas to win votes that mattered most to him, which was why he took off in such an ambitious direction with them in the first place. Again, such superficiality misses the essential truth of the matter.
For no matter the outcome, it appears that Jindal has pushed forward the transformative process in Louisiana government even further. As noted by state Sen. Conrad Appel, the state conversation about policy is not whether tax changes of the nature Jindal has proposed should be enacted, but how. Over the past few years, only one Democrat offered legislation to cut income taxes, two years ago – and even then it was a political stunt ultimately designed to subvert any shrinking of the size of government.
Now check out bills filed this session. Suddenly, Republicans, a no party adherent, and even Democrats have bills calling for various income tax cuts, no questions asked. True, Democrat versions are the least far reaching and some of them also have filed bills calling for increased tobacco taxes and increased spending tied to them, but the mushrooming from almost nothing to just in a single year these several proposals from the left shows the needle has been moved, perhaps permanently. Other bills from members of both parties seek to simplify the system. Even as chances of the entire Jindal package passing fall, it’s now almost certain income tax relief is coming to some payers in the state this year, and that then system itself will be a simpler and more efficient.
If even a quarter of a loaf comes to rise this session, that continues to build a legacy of transformation by Jindal, who very much and correctly desires this to come about. And I suspect that should he never ascend to political heights to which appears to covet, if there had to be a tradeoff between such a position and knowledge he had started, if not substantially enabled, the sea change in Louisiana politics that he seems well on the way to achieving, he’d rather have that legacy.