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|From in the spotlight to on the spot|
From chatting up Jay Leno on the Tonight Show to addressing the National Press Club, Gov. Bobby Jindal served Louisiana well from a distance last week. For a state accustomed to cringing at past chief executives' national exposure, Jindal's star turn puts an exclamation point on the statement that politics is changing down the bayou.
Good for him and us. Now, for his next appearance, he might consider taking the elevator down to the first floor of the State Capitol, where the Legislature is verging on making hash of his carefully scripted session agenda.
Even his faithful supporters are nervous that somewhere between Hollywood and Washington their leader began to lose his grip on this legislative session and the conservative movement he brought with him to the Capitol. Not that he can't regain control, but a delicate situation is turning very dicey.
While the governor's attention was elsewhere, a large tax-cut bill that was not supposed to see the light of day slipped its chains, grew monstrously larger and now threatens to devour his first budget.
The Jindal administration opposed but apparently took lightly a bill by Sen. Buddy Shaw, R-Shreveport, to reverse the income tax increase of the Stelly plan of 2002. Shaw's one-page bill would reduce from six percent to four percent the tax rate on incomes between $25,000 and $50,000, amounting to a $500 break for individuals and a $302 million hit to the state treasury.
Certainly, candidate Jindal heard constant complaints about the hated "Stelly tax" throughout his campaign, as did the dozens of new lawmakers elected with him. Yet when the out-of-control state spending he railed against came under his control, he grew reluctant to diminish the revenue stream needed to fund what he termed his "strategic investments" in education, public safety and mental health. Reducing business taxes made his agenda but reversing the Stelly tax was ignored.
When mild-mannered Sen. Shaw (at 74, the Legislature's oldest member) presented his bill in committee, an administration staffer was sent to perfunctorily oppose it. But he was rebuffed by senators who approved the measure. That was a big missed tackle. Once the bill was on the Senate floor, the governor's allies tried but failed to get the votes to shunt it to another committee. Their next best strategy was to get behind an amendment by Sen. Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville, to phase out the entire income tax, at a cost of $4 billion. Gautreaux may have been sincere, but the motive of most voting with him was to make the bill impossible for the House to pass.
The next day, callers to conservative talk radio shows blistered the Senate leadership for the ruse as well as the governor, whom they saw as behind it.
Also, it is doubtful that the parliamentary trick will work, for it will be simple enough for the more conservative House to strip Gautreaux's amendment and to pass Shaw's bill in its original form.
This is putting Jindal and his legislative leadership in the untenable position of having to work with Democrats to thwart or scale back the major cause championed by his fellow Republicans. Worse yet, he has missed the opportunity to claim credit for what could be the biggest tax break in decades.
While not publicly opposing Shaw's bill, the governor said he would welcome tax cuts that are accompanied by spending reductions. Over the next two weeks, the young House will get a reality check on the difficulty of agreeing on what is wasteful spending as opposed to strategic investments. Yet, most predict that the days of the Stelly tax are numbered.
At this point, the best that Jindal can hope for is to phase in the $302 million tax cut over four years, by which time he'll make us think it was all his idea. He can surely out-talk Buddy Shaw.
But he's a long way from that happy point. Had he seen all this coming two weeks ago, before he boarded the plane, he could have got in front of the tax-cut parade instead of having to scramble to catch up to it.