As is typical, the clash between the transformative ideas of Gov. Bobby Jindal and Louisiana’s political culture makes the voting public appear schizophrenic, with implications for his agenda going forward.
Prior to each legislative session, over the past several years it has become a rite of Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby to commission a survey concerning prominent politicians and issues. However, it must be noted that the sampling of 600 registered voters, not actual intended voters for a future election, did a substandard job in a couple of ways, making some of its conclusions problematic in presenting a valid reading of them.
It did have a tilt in favor of interests that might be expected to support Democrats, given results gathered from the kinds of candidates they typically vote for compared to 2012 election results. More disturbingly, it oversampled tremendously in one way in that one in nine reported having a household member working as a public school teacher when only about 50,000 are employed as public school teachers statewide out of about 2.9 million registered voters or a an actual ratio (assuming the proportion of registered voters of adults at 82 percent is reflected in households, or 1.37 million) of 3.6 percent, meaning the sample actually contained three times the proportion of public school teachers in a household than actually exists in the population.
This helps explain why on some issues the survey delivers numbers that it does. It claims that about half of the public is against school vouchers with about 10 percent fewer in favor and that nearly half give Jindal a “D” or “F” for education policy. Assuming that most teacher households are against vouchers and rate Jindal poorly on education, adjusting the numbers to reflect the actual population actually essentially would reverse the distribution on vouchers and would a split on whether Jindal deserves an “A” or “B” as opposed to a “D” of “F.”
Also affected by the sample difficulties are evaluations of politicians. Jindal racks up only 38 percent approval (down from 51 percent just six months ago), but adjusting the sample for oversampling of teachers and assuming that 75 percent give Jindal poorer marks (an estimate, because unfortunately the survey does not report that actual breakdown), this pushes Jindal approval close to 45 percent. Remove the lean to Democrat supporters, and he’s close to having as many approving as disapproving. Still, in promoting an ambitious agenda such as the tax swap and simplification, being under 50 percent at best in approval is not where you want to be.
And this edition does bear bad news for Jindal’s main agenda of a measure in its present form. About five-eighths of the sample said they did not support it, an issue not well correlated with the sampling issues and so large regardless that it bodes ill for passage in that form. Likely the complexity of the idea is causing reservations, and a shift to a less effective for economic growth but more easily-understood plan of a flat individual income tax at the lowest rate, no corporate or franchise tax, keeping the planned tobacco tax hike and severance tax exemption halving, and broadening the sales tax coverage that should maintain neutrality might make for converts among the public and legislators.
Public overall opposition also registers in the area of privatizing state hospital operations and further budget cutting, where about three-fifths don’t prefer either. But Jindal doesn’t need legislative approval to pursue the former, and with the latter the survey did not ask about the only alternative to cuts, raising taxes overall to gain additional revenue. It probably did not because it likely would have found something already known, overall opposition except maybe in the area of additional tobacco taxes.
Which, once again, leaves what seems on the surface contradictory and only understandable in reference to the clash of political cultures. For even as Jindal at best is treading water in approval, on every issue asked including education and public-provided hospital care, healthy majorities of the public see at least a little progress in improving these. Bizarrely, despite the fact that on education a majority say quality is worsening, on other Jindal-backed education measures of increased teacher accountability, more charter school flexibility and usage, and tax deductions used to pay for attendance at private schools, majorities support these. A large majority may want budget cutting to stop – and huge ones in the specific areas of health care and higher education – yet a bare majority say that past cutting has hurt their household.
These apparent contradictions are understandable only through the lens of the cultural clash. Louisiana’s populist legacy interspersed with social conservatism and a desire of convenient non-interference by government produces a state political culture where you get a citizenry that claims it wants minimal government – except when it inconveniences you by curtailing stuff you expect and want. You may be all for government with a light hand on the tiller of business – except when talk turns to cutting out a tax exemption that has favored your business at the expense of the taxpayer. You may be all for efficiency in government – except when as a state employee it’s your job that’s cut to make it so. You may be all for introducing educational reforms – except when the private school that tax deductions helps you pay for to educate your children because of vouchers starts taking in children from lower socioeconomic status families with whom otherwise you never associate.
The populist stain imbued into Louisiana’s political culture tells that you can get stuff from government that costs you nothing but instead somebody else, without any reciprocal expectation that you bear the appropriate cost. Jindal and like-minded legislators reject that, but Jindal is the point man and with such an ambitious agenda after reelection has tried to break decisively with that, bringing the state a long way to do that in a quest to shepherd the state through the greatest transformation in its history – in two terms – is bound to have him draw the blame when the policies he supports now makes costs to them unavoidable. Or, to paraphrase one who skillfully reinforced elements of populism during his many years as governor, the people through elections asked for Jindal to bring more efficient government with better outcomes to the people, but now that they’re getting it, they may not like it so much.
And this is rapidly exhausting his political capital, the survey says. The question is whether he has enough to continue the transformation as planned, whether he needs to scale it back to succeed, or whether against this inertia he can succeed at all.