July 2, 2008 12:00
With only eight days remaining, the Death March came to a screeching halt. Monday morning, after more than a week of repeatedly saying he wouldn’t veto the legislative pay raises that doubled legislators’ salaries, Gov. Bobby Jindal reversed course and broke out his veto pen, much to the chagrin of a majority pack of Louisiana lawmakers who were banking on bigger paychecks. After being backed into a corner, Jindal was faced with two unattractive options: break his campaign pledge to voters, or break his promise to legislators that he wouldn’t interfere with their pay raise. With the July 8 veto deadline looming, Capitol pundits began referring to the interim as the Death March.

He made the right choice, and in the course of the snowballing venom and public pressure that ultimately fueled the veto, he did something else that’s practically unheard of in modern-day politics — admitted he was wrong. “I clearly made a mistake by telling the Legislature that I would allow them to handle their own affairs,” Jindal said in a statement. “As with all mistakes, you can either correct them or compound them — I am choosing to correct my mistake now.

“I have said that I was not going to stop legislators from more than doubling their own pay by vetoing this because I did not want to give them any excuse to slow down the momentum of our reform movement here in Louisiana. It turns out this is an unsustainable position. I have come to realize that the reforms I have been fighting for are simply incompatible with this legislative pay raise.” 

Jindal’s about-face came after a string of developments made it politically impossible for the governor not to veto the bill. Intense media coverage and Internet-fueled pressure helped spark a recall petition against Jindal, which turned out to be the least of his woes. With the deadline for him to veto the bill still more than a week away, the political winds didn’t just shift; they turned into a cyclone. The national media finally picked up on the story and called out Jindal on two occasions — staunch conservative and Fox News host Sean Hannity said on his radio show that Jindal was “making a big mistake” if he didn’t veto the pay raises, while CNN political analyst Candy Crowley grilled Jindal on national television over his refusal to veto the bill. Those two outings stood in stark contrast to national media interviews just days earlier, when CNN host Glenn Beck and Fox News’ Stuart Varney didn’t even bring up the pay raise issue, instead allowing Jindal to talk about chemical castration and more Jindal-as-McCain’s-VP rumors.

The final straw, however, was probably the rally organized by bayoubuzz.com publisher Stephen Sabludowsky scheduled for the state Capitol on July 7. On the eve of Jindal’s deadline to veto the bill, the last thing Jindal wanted voters and the local and national media to see was outraged protestors voicing their disillusionment. (After he finally vetoed the bill, the rally was canceled and Jindal’s recall petition pulled.)

With a chunk of his tarnished reputation restored, now Jindal’s biggest challenge is restoring his credibility in the Legislature. As an analogy, imagine if Jindal was the CEO of a publicly traded company. And imagine being an employee of that company, whose boss has repeatedly promised you a raise. Yet when shareholders revolt, your boss breaks his promise to you. The upcoming company retreat is going to be a little awkward.

Jindal, however, isn’t just responsible for the bottom line. Louisiana’s public education system, health care system, coastal restoration efforts and ethics reform measures take their cues from his leadership — and pay raises aside, the first session’s achievements fell far short of its lofty goals. Louisiana government watchdog Public Affairs Research Council issued its commentary and assessment of the legislative session, and the results weren’t pretty. PAR concluded:

“Rather than sparking a new era for Louisiana’s economic progress, this session instead served to establish a new order of power struggles between the executive and legislative branches of government. The Legislature put up a surprising fight on several fronts long considered protected by gubernatorial power: capital outlay, budget making, pay raises, tax cuts. Equally surprising, this growing rebelliousness was often met by the Jindal administration with disengagement and detachment. The governor lost control of the two most important bills of the session, the Stelly tax cut and the legislative pay raise. Perhaps having these early power struggles out of the way, Louisiana’s newly elected leaders can now get on with the business of planning for substantial reforms that overhaul the tired way things are done. Health care and education would be the place to start.”

The casualties from the pay-raise debacle and Jindal’s baffling ethics-reform moves are still being tallied. Jindal’s legislative director, Tommy Williams, resigned over the weekend after only six months on the job, just as there was a mass exodus from the Louisiana Board of Ethics. The voters won when Jindal vetoed the pay raise, and now it’s time to see if the governor and the Legislature have learned their lessons from the Death March.

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