So Far Two Things are Evident About Our Governor

by Steve May

But we can hope for more. Bobby Jindal is clearly ambitious and well-intentioned.

He started with ethics, promising us new ethics laws and delivering. Yet his efforts on ethics reform, much heralded and praised, await the hard evidence that the new is clearly an improvement over the old.

There is good reason to be concerned. Many who have followed this closely, like Capitol political observer and state demographer Elliott Stonecipher, The Advocate’s Capitol News Bureau Editor Mark Ballard, and former Louisiana Ethics Board Chairman Hank Perret, have expressed concern that the new bill Jindal signed into law actually may be less effective. There has been much statewide backslapping and high-five-ing by state conservatives over its passage and a good deal of national press coverage acknowledging the effort as evidence that true reform has finally arrived here in the Gret Stet. Who can’t hope these efforts will ultimately prove successful? The jury’s still out though.

The second thing about Jindal is he appears to want outta here. Like really bad.

I am hard-pressed to name in recent history a first-term governor, other than perhaps Jimmy Carter, who, upon inauguration and moving into the official state residence, has so unambiguously and immediately undertaken a campaign for the White House. Few weeks pass without fund-raising trips to far away primary states, including the biggest of the big, the holy grail of Iowa. Only last week we learned the governor will deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s speech to Congress next week. Through the miracle of modern technology, he won’t have to leave town to do that.

Immense personal popularity statewide gives Jindal the currency to conduct his 2012 White House bid so brazenly. A state economy that sports an unemployment rate currently under 6 percent, driven by minimal oil industry job layoffs so far, contributes to the popularity lift. But while he often is away campaigning, his admirers believe he’s so bright he can ride his state unicycle and spin six pie plates while doing it. To his fans, he gets more state work done in an hour abusing his laptop at 36,000 feet over South Carolina than his opponents and detractors could slaving away for days back home. Still, for some of us who don’t know her, it’s hard to avoid the distinct impression his wife, Supriya, may be spending more time contemplating White House drapery than arranging furniture and affairs in the governor’s mansion. Like the Edwin of old and today’s Obama, Bobby’s bullet-proof, at least for the foreseeable future.

Before he departs for D.C., Jindal’s got two other critical jobs to do, which, if accomplished, could leave him with a legacy of Kingfish proportions. To get there, however, he may need to stick around the Capitol a lot more and lighten up on the national campaigning long enough to address Louisiana’s chronically debilitating problems — education and health care.

Not that he’s not already at work on this. He clearly is. And his hires for the state agencies that oversee these two areas, Paul Pastorek and Alan Levine are first rate, by almost all accounts. Cleaning up just one of these festering crises would create a place of honor for him in Louisiana history books and the everlasting admiration of his constituents, even among many Louisianians who voted against him.

Consider higher education. This week the State Board of Regents took up, among other issues, the unpleasant topic of college consolidation. The upside of a state budget being down about $1.2 billion is we get to seriously discuss topics that aren’t normally mentionable in proper political company, since you never know who might be standing next to you at the party, representing one of our far-flung outposts of higher ed. Topics like the utterly illogical and unsustainable proliferation of state higher ed dollars into “universities” like LSU at Alexandria and Eunice, are good examples.

Last week Acadiana’s state Sens. Mike Michot and Nick Gautreaux hammered home this message in meetings of the Senate Finance Committee. State college leaders in attendance included higher ed chief Sally Clausen and LSU System President John Lombardi. The Advocate’s Jordan Blum, in an informative and thoroughly entertaining story on the meeting, quotes Clausen, who wasn’t in her current job when our Legislature decided unwisely to turn LSU-A into a university back in 2001. “I think you need to look at what you [legislators] did in Alexandria,” Clausen said after being asked for possible targets of the education budget ax. Blum notes that as she was saying this, Lombardi was trying to discourage her from speaking out. Makes you wish you’d have been there to witness the outbreak of rare candor. And who knows? With the state budget so totally strapped, there just might be more future legislative discoveries of this commodity in such short supply.

Lower down the ed ladder there is also encouraging news. Education Secretary Pastorek comes with excellent credentials and already has demonstrated wisdom and bravery in firing East Baton Rouge Parish school principals as he took over their tragically under-performing public schools. Pastorek has all the markings of a truly great selection with the chops to deliver his side of the ed reform plan — policy.

However, there will need to be many acts of wisdom and bravery by Pastorek’s boss in the months and years ahead, particularly if the boss is planning to exit for Washington in three years or less.

Wholesale reconstruction of the elementary and secondary school structure is necessary, starting at the parish level. Hard questions need to be asked and addressed about the criteria for school board membership as well as a shake-up in the board role in policy and administration. Voters need to raise significantly their expectations about the qualifications of those who serve on these boards. We should seriously consider reducing, if not eliminating, the board’s role in school administration. In its place could be a new way of doing business that provides for a strong superintendent with both responsibility and authority to run the school system. Without both, as is the case today, there can be no accountability. Without accountability you get more of what we have today.

The end of teacher tenure is also needed, along with empowering superintendents with the ability to hire and fire both principals and teachers based on their performance. Complementing this policy should be a new one that rewards principals and teachers financially for improved student test scores.

Accomplishing goals that require these fundamental realignments are difficult in the extreme. There are entrenched, very powerful interest groups that will fight reforms like these to the bitter end. It is a most daunting task.

Pastorek is more the policy guy, not a skilled politician. On the political side, nothing short of Jindal’s best efforts will be necessary in education reform. Is he up to the task that will require enormous political heft and the expenditure of massive amounts of time and political capital on his part? Without that level of effort on the governor’s part, something as ambitious as education reform in a single term is unlikely. So, is Jindal’s plan to posture about education reform, merely talking the talk while flying around the country building his national presidential base? Or will he make the real commitment of time and energy, agreeing to spill the blood of his and others necessary to make Louisiana education reform a reality?

Bobby Jindal is the rare politician who shows up once in a generation around our parts. The opportunity is his to make the commitment to stick around long enough to fight the good fight and see the vision he promised through.