The high drama and eleventh-hour brinkmanship that marked the final days of the annual Louisiana legislative session should stand as a warning to anyone who might — in a fit of temporary insanity — remotely consider voting for Bobby Jindal for president. To be sure, the governor did not bring on the state's fiscal crisis all by himself; he had plenty of help from state lawmakers. But he was always captain of this rudderless ship, when he bothered to turn his attention toward Louisiana. He even championed the notion of sawing off the rudder, once he warmed to the idea.
We're talking about Jindal's fateful decision in 2008 to support the demagogic idea of rolling back the state income tax brackets that were the underpinning of the Stelly Plan. The Stelly Plan was named for then-state Rep. Vic Stelly of Lake Charles, who proposed the radically sane notion of lowering sales taxes on groceries and utility bills, and instead raising state income taxes. Sales taxes are regressive and disproportionately affect the poor, while income taxes are progressive and can be deducted on federal income tax returns. Over time, income taxes better reflect economic growth and thus constitute a more reliable revenue stream than sales taxes. The Stelly Plan made so much sense that Louisiana voters adopted it as a constitutional amendment in 2002, with the support of then-Gov. Mike Foster, a conservative Republican.
The next governor and the next Legislature will inherit a fiscal train wreck.
Unfortunately, some of the Stelly Plan's provisions were scaled back under Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco in 2007. She and the lawmakers who served with her must own that mistake. Jindal — who initially opposed repealing Stelly for precisely the reasons that have come to tragic fruition — caved to political pressure in May 2008 (his first legislative session as governor) and ever since has claimed the "tax cut" as if it were his idea. It wasn't, but he does own the consequences of that bad decision. The $300 million in state revenue that he tossed aside in 2008 surely is much larger now. Meanwhile, the billions that Louisiana gives in "incentives" to businesses and spends on NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have added to a problem that this year grew to $1.6 billion.
It will take weeks if not months to fully unravel what lawmakers did in the final moments of the annual legislative session last week, but this much is certain: The next governor and the next Legislature will inherit a fiscal train wreck. Each of the four leading candidates for governor promises to call a special legislative session immediately upon taking office to deal with the Jindal legacy, which by all accounts will be a colossal mess. Between now and the statewide open primary on Oct. 24, candidates for governor and the Legislature should tell voters the truth and offer specific solutions, not platitudes. We suggest some form of the Stelly Plan should be on the table.
Jindal, meanwhile, can take solace in the fact that he remains mired at 1 percent or less in every presidential preference poll of Republican voters — both nationally and in the early primary states. If he were at all relevant to the 2016 conversation, he would have to explain the mess he's leaving behind in Louisiana.