Leadership changes and personal involvement from the governor have improved relations between Bobby Jindal and the state Legislature, but it's a truce forged on shaky ground.
It's not exactly rainbows, puppy dogs and lollipops, but Gov. Bobby Jindal's relationship with lawmakers has never been better. It's an unlikely reconciliation, considering many legislators showed up this year wanting to put the screws to Jindal — and a few still do — for vetoing their pay raise last year, forcing new disclosure requirements on them, slamming them in speeches and not reining in his staff.
But that's in the past, at least for now. Practically every lawmaker interviewed for this story says Jindal has turned around his game and is communicating with the Legislature far better than he was last year. That's when three consecutive sessions wreaked havoc on the traditional learning curve and a record crop of freshman were pitted against an aggressive young administration that was likewise cutting its teeth at the state Capitol.
Among the reasons for the new go-along-to-get-along mentality is the revised role Timmy Teepell, Jindal's chief of staff, is playing in this year's regular session. While Teepell remains the administration's brain trust, he's no longer the sole link between legislators and the governor. Jindal, for his part, is making regular appearances — a rarity last year — and meeting privately with key lawmakers. "We all still have our differences in the Legislature, but I think a lot of us will tell you right now that the governor's personal touch is going a long way," says House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers.
Jindal supporters like Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Bourg, say they've seen the governor in small groups on a regular basis in recent weeks. But, unlike the few meetings held last year, this year's gatherings are not confined to feel-good chitchat. "We're finally hearing the governor talk about substantive issues," Dupre says. "He used to avoid controversial topics when meeting with us, but he's more willing to get to the nitty-gritty now. My only concern is I don't think the governor is reaching out enough to traditional opponents. He's not trying to sway them."
Administration officials contend Jindal has held forth with many Democrats and members of the Legislative Black Caucus, but few from those factions are willing to pat the governor on the back just yet. "It used to be that if you had a bill the administration didn't like, you never heard word one about it," says Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans. "Now they're sending word. Still, it seems that if you're against the governor on one thing, they just write you off."
As for Teepell, legislators say they're seeing and hearing less of him these days — and when they do see him, it's almost as if he's a new man. Teepell has ditched his trademark faded jeans and cowboy boots in favor of suits and even ties. The latest rumor from legislative quilting circles suggests the Senate toyed with a resolution requiring the makeover.
Makeover aside, it's Teepell's new attitude that is drawing the most praise. That's amazing in light of how critical lawmakers were of Jindal's right-hand man — and his pushy ways — just a few months ago. "It does seem like Timmy has become a better listener," says Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville. "He's listening to opposing voices more and is more open-minded. I've experienced that firsthand this session."
Teepell's best move may have been hiring Scott Angelle as Jindal's legislative liaison. Angelle, who's doing double duty as secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (and not being paid as a Jindal staffer), has been embraced by lawmakers and has earned their respect. Like many lawmakers, his background is in local government, and he's a Democrat, allowing him to reach out effectively to anti-Jindal forces. "Scott Angelle is the administration's link to political reality right now," says one veteran lobbyist.
Angelle says he has worked closely with Teepell, and even closer with Jindal, to improve relations. He says his philosophy has been to approach the job as if he has two bosses: Jindal and the Legislature. "At the end of the day, it's about counting those votes," Angelle says, "but during the process, on our way to getting there, there's no reason not to search for ways to get along and work together."
Tommy Williams, a veteran lobbyist who held the legislative liaison position under Jindal before Angelle, says Angelle was a smart hire. He predicts Angelle will surprise anyone not yet convinced of his skills. Williams adds that the passage of time may be Jindal's best friend, even more so than Teepell or Angelle. "All of the freshman have got the hang of things now and have three consecutive sessions under their belts. The administration has the benefit of more than a year's experience," Williams says. "The transition period is over."
There's one more explanation for why the relationship between Jindal and the Legislature smells sweeter than ever. While many lawmakers entered this session vowing to cut their shackles, the reality is that Jindal is the governor of a state that confers king-like powers upon its chief executive. For his part, Jindal is staying eerily quiet on the Legislature's money bills, which makes lawmakers nervous. To the extent that he controls the money — particularly via prioritizing capital projects and wielding his line-item veto pen — Jindal controls a vast number of lawmakers. "Lawmakers are learning their place," says one statewide elected official. "The governor's going to win."
Senate President Joel Chaisson, D-Destrehan, has decided to test that theory by throwing his weight behind a three-year freeze on federal itemized deductions. While it would raise money for Louisiana as the state struggles with a $1.3 billion shortfall, Jindal opposes the measure.
On issues of transparency, which Jindal has famously avoided, lawmakers have talked loudly but so far have produced little. Last month, in what turned out to be more a show of Jindal's power than of lawmakers' independence, the Senate failed to rewrite legislation that could have opened more records in the governor's office to public scrutiny. A dismayed Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, took to the Senate floor and mocked Jindal by using the governor's own words from his opening-session speech. "I heard it," Adley says of the speech. "'We must change. We will change' — except when it applies to me."
The session adjourns on June 25, and the massive cuts to the state budget have yet to hit home. "There's a lot of golf left in this game," Angelle says of the session. "One bad bill could turn this entire thing upside down."
WRITER'S NOTE: Next week's column will feature a closer look at how Angelle carries out his job and more on why lawmakers dig his style.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.