Anti-Tax Stance Boosts Gov. Bobby Jindal Despite State’s Budget Woes

January 25, 2010 - 6:23 AM
His approval ratings in Louisiana are still high, but critics and some analysts wonder how long he can please power-brokers outside his state without angering voters in it.
Bobby Jindal

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal addresses a news conference at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge on June 11, 2009. (AP File Photo/Bill Haber)

Baton Rouge, La. (AP) - Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's refusal to raise taxes is boosting his stature with a re-energized national GOP, even while his state faces severe budget cuts to education, health care and social service programs.
 
His approval ratings in Louisiana are still high, but critics and some analysts wonder how long he can please power-brokers outside his state without angering voters in it.
 
Jindal is considered a possible future presidential contender, even though he routinely demurs when asked about the possibility. The midpoint of his first term as governor comes as the national GOP builds momentum from an upset win in a Massachusetts U.S. Senate race.
 
At the same time, President Barack Obama's current approval rating has dipped to 56 percent from a sky-high 74 when he took office.
 
While Jindal insists he's running only for a second term as governor, he has traveled to fundraisers around the country in the last two years and often appeared on national TV news shows. His most recent appearance was to oppose the Democrats' health care overhaul proposals.
 
What he's doing in his home state also plays to a national audience. His refusal to consider tax increases ensures more severe budget cuts for state programs, but Republican strategists say he should stay the course if he's angling for a future presidential campaign.
 
"When you talk to the rank and file person, they think the best way to revive the economy is to cut taxes and cut waste, and that's what Jindal is doing," said GOP pollster and consultant Jim McLaughlin. He noted supporting tax increases hurt former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican who sought the presidency in 2008 and hasn't ruled out another bid.
 
If Jindal wants to position himself on the national ticket, he'll likely be competing with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called Jindal "the next Ronald Reagan," and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he was "maybe the smartest governor in this country."
 
His nationally televised debut to much of the country -- a speech last February responding to Obama's address to Congress -- was widely panned as amateurish and out of step with the American public. Still, analysts say the 38-year-old, Oxford-educated son of Indian immigrants is recovering from the misstep and it didn't permanently damage his national prospects.
 
Jindal ran against tax increases and big government spending, but he took office in January 2008 when the state had hundreds of millions in surplus cash.
 
Now the state's budget shortfall is estimated at $1 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and the gap is expected to grow even larger a year later when federal stimulus money disappears. The worst budget cuts would fall right in the midst of Jindal's 2011 re-election campaign. But he hasn't changed his mind on taxes, and complaints are growing about big cuts to state programs.
 
"By making the decision we're not going to raise taxes on our people, I think that it has forced our agencies to be much more creative, to be more efficient, to look at more opportunities to outsource, to have to set priorities," Jindal said in an interview.
 
Tania Nyman, an English instructor who may lose her job and who organized a recent protest, said Jindal and lawmakers worsened the state's money problems by passing tax breaks.
 
"Gov. Jindal wants you to think these budget cuts are necessary belt-tightening in tough economic times. That's not true," Nyman said. "I just hope the people of Louisiana understand these cuts are unnecessary."
 
Still, polls in the increasingly red state back Jindal. He has a high approval rating, and Baton Rouge-based pollster Bernie Pinsonat said annual surveys of voters repeatedly show they think Louisiana has a spending problem, not a revenue shortfall.
 
McLaughlin said Jindal can weather criticism and it can help him run as a reformer on the national stage. Ronald Reagan got attacked for making deep budget cuts too, McLaughlin said.
 
"I'm not going to sit here and say that Bobby Jindal can cut, cut, cut and there will be no consequences. Certain people are going to be unhappy. But is that the overwhelming majority of Louisiana? I don't think so," Pinsonat said.