Gov. Bobby Jindal is getting a lesson in multi-tasking these days. He's spending most of his time in coastal Louisiana soaking up network photo ops in connection with the Gulf oil disaster, but at the same time he's also trying to keep tabs (and tight controls) on an increasingly contentious legislative session in Baton Rouge. So far, he appears to be doing better at the former.
The governor's most far-reaching bills — those to overhaul higher education and address current and projected budget shortfalls — have sputtered, much like his national ambitions. Now in his third year as governor, Jindal is starting to wear thin among lawmakers. These can be treacherous times for a governor.
While his major initiatives have stalled, one bill not to the governor's liking has gathered momentum and is headed right at him. Senate Bill 407 by Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, would roll back a $15 increase in the cost of Louisiana driver's licenses. The higher fees caught most lawmakers by surprise when the State Police announced in March that the agency was relying on a 1989 law to increase the cost of all driver's licenses by $15. That boosted the cost of a regular license from $21.50 to $36.50.
As taxes and fees go, this one is small potatoes, yet it has the potential to vex Jindal, who aspires to maintain his tax virginity at all costs. He does that mostly by playing an old political word game: supporting "fees" but not "taxes." Jindal's administration supports the higher fee and therefore opposes McPherson's bill.
The higher fee generates about $13.6 million a year. McPherson's bill would roll back the increase and require the Office of Motor Vehicles to refund the difference to drivers who obtained or renewed licenses since March 8. That would take another $5 million out of the current fiscal year's budget, which is already several hundred million dollars out of whack.
Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson, who also serves as deputy secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, said he determined there is a need to improve the convenience, security and integrity of the licensing system — including safeguards against terrorism, identity theft and fraud. Edmonson says the 1989 law allows for such fee increases without a legislative vote.
McPherson disagrees, and so far he has convinced the Senate and two House committees to see things his way. His bill awaits final action on the House floor before going to Jindal's desk — where the governor will have to decide whether to sign the measure, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.
Publicly, Jindal has made no pronouncements about McPherson's bill, but lawmakers know he opposes it. Several of Jindal's aides filled out "opposition cards" in the House Ways and Means Committee during a hearing on the measure last week, and Edmonson asked the committee's chairman, Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, to delay the scheduled hearing on it. Edmonson is appointed by Jindal and serves at the governor's pleasure.
Greene refused to delay the hearing. McPherson noted that the bill already was delayed a week in the Senate at Jindal's request. He called the administration's move "a stall-and-kill tactic."
On one level, the McPherson bill puts Jindal in a bind. If he can't get his allies to kill the measure, he will have to take a stand on it himself when it reaches his desk. If that happens in the next week or so, lawmakers could consider overriding a veto before adjourning June 21. Besides, a veto would antagonize many voters.
On the other hand, Jindal is not above jumping to the front of an anti-tax movement and taking credit for its success — even after opposing it earlier. Look at how deftly he reversed himself on the Stelly Tax rollback in 2008. First he fought the rollback, then announced he was for it ... and has taken credit ever since for reducing taxes.
My money says history will repeat itself. Jindal will do all he can to kill the bill, then sign it if it passes — and take credit for lowering an unpopular fee increase. Never mind that his administration imposed the fee in the first place.
George Orwell would love this guy. Just imagine what he might do once he learns to multi-task.