Bad Relations

by Jeremy Alford

In addition to all of his pending headaches, Gov. Bobby Jindal must find a way to mend fences with legislators, who say they feel misled, ignored and shut out. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s veto of the legislative pay raise isn’t going to endear him to the lawmakers who supported the measure, but Jindal’s problems in the Legislature didn’t begin there. True respect, from the political vernacular, is earned, and Jindal’s repeated hiccups in simply communicating with legislators during this most recent session did little to help his cause.

Besides the pay raise, Jindal’s other vetoes have caused some of the resentment.

Rep. Karen St. Germain, a Democrat from Plaquemine, was surprised to find out Jindal had vetoed her bill to carve out an exception in the ethics law pertaining to the food, drinks and refreshments lawmakers can be treated to or comped. Specifically, it would have resurrected the good old days for legislators at “recruitment, fundraising or philanthropic activities.”

St. Germain says the “Fourth Floor,” where Jindal’s offices are located at the State Capitol, repeatedly told her they would work with her on a compromise. “And I believed it,” she says. Then at the session’s 11th hour, executive privilege shredded the earlier diplomacy.

Rep. Hunter Greene, a Baton Rouge Republican who serves in Jindal’s leadership as chairman of Ways and Means, also saw red ink on his bill to broaden the scope of information that can be released in “child in need of care” proceedings. Greene says the administration originally told him they were “fine” with the bill but then proceeded with a veto without ever contacting him with questions or requests for supporting information. “I think something is missing from the process,” he says.

It was an Advocate story last week that set off Sen. Butch Gautreaux, a Democrat from Morgan City and Senate Retirement Committee chairman. Jindal was dedicating an extension of Veterans Memorial near Wallace. The governor, however, didn’t invite the regional lawmakers who got the ball rolling on the longterm hurricane evacuation route several terms ago, Gautreaux says.

Equally as upsetting, he adds, were Jindal’s efforts to take credit for the $300 million tax break — the reversal of the Stelly Plan — that legislators cultivated and passed. “Bobby is running all over the state and country taking credit for everything good and blaming us for what he says is bad,” Gautreaux says. “He took credit for the Stelly repeal that he lobbied against.”

During the session’s opening weeks, GOP Rep. Wayne Waddell of Shreveport was hung out to dry when the administration originally promised to collaborate on opening more records in the governor’s office to public view but then never showed up at the table. On another occasion, the administration took no noticeable stance in initial hearings on legislation by Rep. Rick Gallot, a Ruston Democrat, and then showed up unannounced at a subsequent committee meeting to voice opposition to the bill, which allows the lieutenant governor to make certain board appointments.

Nearly all of the miscues involved staff carrying out the wishes of the governor, who essentially governed in absentia this session. Some legislators have complained publicly about his sideline approach; others relish the independence. The strategy has resulted in a power shift to House Speaker Jim Tucker and Senate President Joel Chaisson II. Rumblings and chatter about the men behind the curtain began surfacing during the February special session on ethics reform. The duo is credited with keeping the wheels on most of Jindal’s legislative accomplishments.

But his choice of Tucker as speaker is a decision that Jindal has to be second-guessing, as Tucker has shown a blinding streak of independence from the herd. He practically single-handedly thwarted the administration’s efforts to change the way the state develops data for its fiscal forecasts, opposing Chaisson, a Democrat from Destrehan, and Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis as members of the Revenue Estimating Conference.

Tucker, one of the catalysts behind the GOP’s power surge in the House, also shepherded a bill that would shift oversight of construction dollars from the governor to the Legislature and all but shoved the pay raise bill down Jindal’s throat. Gallot, chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, says Jindal should have known he was handing the reins over to a feisty kid from Terrytown. “That’s Jim,” Gallot says. “He’s always been that way.”

But Jindal obviously had no idea his legislative relations would come to this. In a post-session press conference that is traditionally held on the heels of the session so legislators can attend, Jindal told reporters that the administration had “learned our lessons and we will keep tighter reins” on the Legislature in the future. It’s probably not what lawmakers wanted to hear.

If the missteps continue, by this time next year Jindal may be holding another press conference and, no matter when it’s scheduled for, complaining about the reins lawmakers have on him. Jindal is going to have to work for the Legislature’s respect and do some coddling and cajoling. Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, is hopeful that some accord will be reached. “Can it be worked out?” he asks. “It could go either way right now. Maybe the Legislature and governor will admit to each other that they’ve been put through the wringer and it’s time to start fresh.”

If not, the next three and a half years could be the longest of Jindal’s life.