The late U.S. Sen. Russell Long, who once chaired the Senate Finance Committee, used to sum up his approach to taxation this way: "Don't tax you. Don't tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree." Louisiana governors have used a similar approach to budget cuts. Just about everybody supports budget cuts — as long as the cuts "hit home" somewhere else.
But what happens when cuts affect every corner of the state? That's what has happened in recent years as Gov. Bobby Jindal trimmed billions from the overall state budget, some of it by himself and much of it because post-Katrina federal aid ran dry. Nowadays, the cuts are hitting home everywhere, even in areas that supported Jindal overwhelmingly. Give the governor credit for not playing favorites. Then again, I doubt he had much choice, given his decision to make deep cuts.
According to the latest statewide survey by Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR), a Baton Rouge-based polling firm, the financial cuts have affected just about everyone — including Jindal, who makes no apology for cutting health care and higher education.
The governor's popularity has slipped to its lowest point since he took office in 2008, according to the SMOR poll. His job approval rating is now just 51 percent positive, with 45.1 percent rating his performance negatively. A positive rating combines responses of "excellent" and "good," while negative ratings comprise responses of "poor" and "not so good." Jindal's positive numbers used to be stratospheric.
In some ways, Jindal's popularity dip was inevitable. You can't govern in tough times without having to make tough decisions. Over time, those tough decisions add up. Jindal says he doesn't pay attention to polls. Better for him that he doesn't, because massive health care cuts came just as the poll numbers were released, and even more are on the way.
Among the poll's findings:
• 68 percent of those surveyed said the budget has been cut enough.
• 43 percent said the cuts have had a negative impact on their family — 36 percent among Republicans.
• 89 percent are concerned about cuts to the LSU-run public hospital system.
• 79 percent said the hospital system will not be able to provide quality health care, and 80 percent said Louisiana residents would lose access to health care because of the cuts.
The survey was taken Sept. 11-20. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. Interestingly, it was paid for by Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, a staunch Jindal supporter and a huge supporter of the governor's education reforms.
Overall, those education reforms got high marks from voters — except for the governor's controversial voucher program. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed support increasing standards for teacher tenure; 73 percent support more teacher accountability; and 56 percent support increased control for principals. But 54 percent oppose school vouchers.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers have been chafing over Jindal's health care cuts, but so far only a few seem willing to do anything about it. State Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, I-Thibodaux, wants his colleagues to call themselves into a special session to confront the governor and the cuts. He released his "call" last week.
The SMOR poll did not address that issue directly, but more than two-thirds of those interviewed (69 percent) said lawmakers should be more independent of the governor. Interestingly, it takes only one-third of the Legislature to trigger a vote for a special session, but it takes two-thirds to override a governor's veto.
Louisiana's governors are vested with enormous power, which helps them maintain sway over most legislators.
Maybe that's why Jindal isn't so worried about his poll numbers.