One persistent criticism of Gov. Bobby Jindal has been his reluctance to risk his political capital in pursuit of controversial but necessary reform. He talks tough in front of citizens, but lawmakers know he mostly runs from tough fights — preferring instead to play it safe.
For example, in his first year in office, Jindal initially (but quietly) opposed a move to roll back the so-called Stelly income tax hikes. When his behind-the-scenes efforts failed, he ran to the front of the rollback parade and loudly embraced the idea as his own.
In 2009, instead of beginning the difficult task of trimming the state budget in advance of this year's totally foreseeable fiscal "cliff," Jindal made sex predators the centerpiece of his legislative agenda.
And last year, while he laudably helped pass the GRAD Act to begin the work of reforming higher education funding (the act allows public universities to raise tuitions if they meet certain performance goals), he caved on the more difficult issue of tightening the state's overall budget. That was particularly disappointing to House Republicans, who led the fight to prepare for the current fiscal nightmare.
That reluctance to take big political risks, combined with his frequent out-of-state travels to promote his book (and himself), steadily eroded Jindal's once stratospheric poll numbers. He's still popular — and in no real danger of losing his re-election bid later this year — but he no longer carries the aura of invincibility. Tough times will do that to any politician.
But last week, in the face of declining poll numbers and a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, Jindal showed some real backbone. He announced his support for the potential merger of the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO). His sudden announcement caught even supporters of the idea off guard, and it triggered the expected howls from members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who consider Louisiana's historically black colleges and universities a sacred cow.
Technically, Jindal announced his support for the idea of the merger; he asked the state Board of Regents to study it and report back by March 1. Even if the regents report favorably, Jindal faces a tough legislative fight. The proposed merger requires a two-thirds vote among lawmakers. To get it done, the governor will have to spend some of that precious political capital he's been hoarding for the past three years.
That will mark a significant change in Jindal's approach to governing, but it will be good for him. He'll learn the value of spending time with lawmakers, which he'll have to do to get his proposal passed, but a win will set him up nicely as a budget hawk — just in time for his re-election campaign.
Meanwhile, Jindal signaled his support for another, even more controversial reform: combining the state's five higher ed boards into one. If he rolls up his sleeves and pushes that one through (as a constitutional amendment, it requires two-thirds legislative approval and statewide voter approval), he will have earned his stripes as a reformer.
Hopefully, the governor also will work to dissolve Louisiana's four separate "systems" of post-secondary education in favor of one system under one board — and apply his belt-tightening strategy to public universities across the state. Combining UNO and SUNO is a popular idea outside of New Orleans, but what about the six public universities in sparsely populated north Louisiana? Real leadership requires boldness — putting one's political capital at risk in pursuit of a greater good.
The state's budget mess presents Jindal with a genuine crisis — and a golden opportunity to prove the wisdom of the old saying, "No guts, no glory."