Sometimes I can tell what kind of day it's going to be when I walk up — it's a slight vertical incline — to the State Capitol in the morning. A snake might cross my path (the place is filthy with them during the spring). There could be hundreds of people in matching T-shirts unintentionally blocking my usual entrance. Lobbyists could be waiting outside my office, as was the case last week.
There's always something — often something symbolic or even ominous. For example, the inmate who dishes up my breakfast hasn't smiled at me since the session opened March 10, while the one who empties the trash in my office occasionally has to be asked to leave. I'm not sure what either portends, if anything, so I retreat into the sanctuary of my headphones, which I don for my morning trek, usually around 7:45 a.m.
As I approach the Capitol, I look up to the fourth floor, hoping today might be the day I spot the governor looking down from his office window, cup of coffee in hand and shirtsleeves rolled up. He'd wave, I like to imagine, and I'd wave back uncomfortably, looking over my shoulder to make sure he's gesturing at me and not one of the snakes.
That would be something — like spotting a four-leaf clover or seeing seagulls diving to the water's edge, a telltale sign there's a trout feeding frenzy going on. It helps to know where to cast your line, even at the Capitol. Alas, Jindal's not around much these days. Of course, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. We in the media devote as much attention to Jindal's out-of-state travels as his legislative agenda, such as it is. And why not? He seems more focused on his national ambitions than Louisiana's problems.
Last Monday, for example, when higher education officials were scrambling to figure out whether they would need a seed loan to cover June cash-flow payments, Jindal was in New York attending a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. On Tuesday, when the Appropriations Committee had to pass a $75 million supplemental bill to rebalance the current fiscal year budget, he was in Florida speaking to the American Federation for Children.
Jindal has steadily evolved from the "call-me-Bobby" congressman who could be reached on his cellphone to the catch-me-if-you-can governor. His management style has changed as well, from hands-on to hands-off. That is especially true this year, which features his lightest legislative agenda ever.
This out-of-sight, out-of-mind suits Jindal, following several years of ramming his proposed ethics, education and retirement reforms down legislative throats. Getting crosswise with teachers and retirees, then with business interests over a failed tax swap plan, wreaked havoc on his popularity. Now that he's no longer hiding his national ambitions — and, perhaps more important, no longer proposing controversial initiatives — Louisiana voters seem more supportive.
Simply put, the less he does the better he looks. In March 2013, his job approval hit rock bottom at 38 percent. A survey of 600 likely voters taken last month by the Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research showed Jindal's job approval rating jumped 10 points. His disapproval rating fell 9 points, to 51 percent — still an overall negative rating, but not the debacle of a year ago.
Perhaps voters have been waiting for Jindal to admit he does not have the job he wants. Maybe they prefer that he focus on national issues, back away from Louisiana's policy table and let lawmakers fill the leadership void.
Trouble is, lawmakers haven't filled that void this year. Others have. I see them every morning walking up to the Capitol. The matching T-shirts — from plumbers fighting code changes to activists speaking out against payday lenders — are far more visible than Jindal. Outside interest groups and lobbyists, like the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity on the right and the Louisiana Budget Project on the left, create more legislative ripples than he does.
All that's not exactly the level of legislative independence columnists pined for in Jindal's headier days. Rather, it's a sign that our governor already has one foot out the door. His successor will have to fill that void.
Until that day comes, I'm keeping my headphones on.