One year ago last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal stood outside the House chamber and fidgeted with his red tie just moments before his entrance was announced. On cue, he sprang onto the floor alongside his wife, Supriya, shook hands, gripped forearms and smiled. It was his first special session, dedicated solely to ethics reform, which was Jindal's top campaign promise. Within days, the governor got most of what he wanted, and he wouldn't let us or Jay Leno or Fox News forget about it.
Then, three months ago, Jindal began concentrating on other priorities, like not running for president. Perhaps coincidentally, that was also when the Center for Public Integrity told Jindal to stop telling journalists that Louisiana had moved to the "top of the list" of the group's annual rankings of ethics laws.
These day, Jindal's "gold standard" looks more like a lead balloon. Just consider the shape we're in:
• The new process for adjudicating ethics cases (along with the higher standard of proof required to prevail against public officials) has gutted the Ethics Board, and its new role is just now beginning to take shape.
• Lobbyists begin filing expenditure reports this week, but the Ethics Board has no personnel in place to verify the reports' accuracy.
• Jindal ordered his cabinet officials last year to file annual disclosure forms by this January, then gave them four more months by issuing a superseding executive order.
Anyone expecting an ethics-reform sequel during the legislative session in April will be fairly disappointed to hear what's not brewing. Jindal has been touring the state pitching his upcoming legislative agenda, but so far the talks have focused on the state's $2 billion budget shortfall, his plan to crack down on sex offenders, and a sprinkling of education priorities, including classroom discipline.
Perhaps it's early for ethics redux, says Jim Brandt, president of the Baton Rouge-based Public Affairs Research Council (PAR). He says it could take another year or so for the state to see tangible benefits from — or drawbacks to — the new laws. "We don't have a track record yet for modifying or eliminating any of the reforms," Brandt says.
On the other hand, it's always a good time to discuss campaign finance, which Brandt says Jindal skipped last year. There's also the possibility of opening up more of the governor's records to public view, a concept PAR backed (and Jindal opposed) in 2008, placing Louisiana among the worst states in the nation when it comes to accessing the executive branch.
Then there are proposals that were shot down in last year's special session on ethics. For instance, Brandt supported a provision that would have prohibited lawmakers from immediately taking certain jobs with the state after leaving office, especially posts that require close interaction with the Legislature. Instead, present law bars officials from entering into contracts with the state for one year after their resignation.
Since that law was passed, former Rep. Don Trahan, R-Lafayette, vacated his post as chairman of the House Education Committee to shill for the state Department of Education. Former House Speaker Joe Salter, a north Louisiana Democrat, made a similar move. More recently, Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Bourg, announced he would pursue the director's position with a Terrebonne Parish levee district that is a political subdivision of the state.
Dupre says he recognizes the potential conflict of interest and plans to disclose it formally. He then could not vote on any legislation related to it — which means he might have to skip votes on the state's major budget bills. Based on the law, that's all he'll need to do.
Meanwhile, Jindal was selected last week to deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama's first State of the Union address. Perhaps he'll find a way to throw in a line about ethics reform in Louisiana when he takes that national stage. As long as the audience keeps getting bigger, talking about ethics reform, like the governor's red tie, never really goes out of style.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.