As the House Appropriations Committee, the group charged with crafting the state's budget — $1 billion shortfall and all — reviewed tight spending proposals for statewide offices last Thursday, Gov. Bobby Jindal was on his way to Lafayette to tout his proposed legislation to crack down on sex offenders. There was little new about the governor's press conference; he has hyped his disdain for perverts often during his nonstop travels around the state.
For the past three years, Jindal has made sexual predators Public Enemy No. 1, no doubt hoping to burnish his image as America's staunchest protector of children. But does that issue really need anything more than a nudge from Jindal? Is there a sex-predator lobbyist out there somewhere preparing arguments against Jindal's package of bills?
Nicholas P. Cahanin, Jindal's deputy legislative director, sent the following email to lawmakers last week offering them a six-hour window to sign on as co-authors: "Below you will find the Governor's Sex Predator Package for the upcoming session. As a way to 'streamline' the process, all you have to do is reply to this email if you want to co-author the package and we will work with your staff to take care of the rest. Please email me by [close of business] today. Please review the drafts below, and let me know."
The email contained a portion of a press release promoting Jindal's plan — actual copies of the legislation were not provided, which is standard Jindal protocol. Information is offered strictly on a need-to-know basis, and decisions often are forced on short notice. In fact, his Lafayette press conference last week was announced just eight hours before the event.
That run-and-gun style came back to bite Jindal on his political rear end last year when House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, among others, questioned the constitutionality of the governor's sex offender bills — and their costs — once all the language was released. As a result, Jindal's 2009 efforts were scaled back considerably.
Upon receiving the email from Cahanin last week, some lawmakers wondered aloud about why Jindal would be beating this drum when the state faces a $1 billion shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — and another $1.7 billion shortfall the following year. "What's wrong with this picture?" asks Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, one of Jindal's chairmen. "While the state is on the brink of financial crisis, the governor is still in campaign mode."
It also makes one wonder who in the administration is focusing on the difficult issues, the ones that won't pass easily. Last year, Tucker and Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, had to be the adults in the room. Just last week, as Jindal was promoting his anti-sex-offender plan, Chaisson introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to use the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund to plug money into Louisiana's fledgling Medicaid program, one of the main sources of budgetary pain.
Jindal hasn't yet released a Medicaid plan, but he has praised Chaisson for getting the debate rolling. Tucker and Chaisson forged an 11th-hour budget compromise last year, and both admitted previously that Jindal didn't come to the table until late in the game. So far, this year looks to be a replay.
The real reason Jindal has embraced the sexual predator issue, of course, is that it resonates with voters everywhere. Without a doubt, it will be Jindal's issue whenever and wherever he chooses to use it.
Moreover, the sexual-predator issue has far fewer critics than Jindal's initial effort at legacy making — ethics reform — which was supposed to give Louisiana a "gold standard," not a muddled mess that still needs reformation. In the end, however, it hardly makes Jindal a bold leader. In fact, it may burnish his image as the leader — and presidential hopeful — least likely to take big risks.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.