The Governor's New Clothes

by Jeremy Alford

When it comes to the hottest legislative trends of the day, it becomes painfully obvious that ethics reform was, like, so last year. A year ago, Bobby Jindal stood outside of the House chamber and fidgeted with his red tie just moments before his entrance was announced. He sprung from the rear entrance and onto the floor alongside his wife, Supriya, and shook hands, gripped forearms and smiled. It was his first special session, dedicated solely to ethics reform, which was undeniably Jindal’s top campaign promise the prior fall. In the end, Jindal got mostly what he wanted, and he wouldn’t let us or Jay Leno or Fox News forget about it.

But then three months ago, the music died. Jindal put down his ethics fiddle and started 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 “on top of the list” of the group’s annual rankings of ethics laws. Whatever did happen, the governor’s iron fist became a cardboard cutout.

These days, Jindal’s “Gold Standard” looks more like a dissected frog absentmindedly left behind by a school boy than it does a cohesive system that’s leaping to the top of national rankings. Just consider the shape we’re in:

• The new process for judging ethics cases has gutted the state Ethics Board and its revised role is just now beginning to surface.

• Lobbyists begin filing expenditure reports this week, but there are no personnel in place to verify their accuracy.

• Cabinet officials were supposed to file their own disclosure forms in January, but Jindal decided to give them a few more months by issuing an executive order.

It’s no wonder why many folks are expecting a follow-up during the regular session that convenes in April. And if they are, they’ll be fairly disappointed to hear what’s not brewing. Even internally in the Legislature, there aren’t many earth-shattering resolutions (the low-hanging fruit of legislation) to serve as feel-good sequels to 2008’s touted reforms. “There are a few things that we might do internally, but it’s just coming together,” says GOP House Speaker Jim Tucker of Algiers. “I just met with my 16 chairmen, and we’re deciding who’s going to do what.”

Jindal has been touring the state discussing his own legislative priorities, but so far the talks have been confined to his administration’s $2 billion budget deficit, his plan to crack down on sex offenders and a sprinkling of important education priorities, like, eh, discipline in the classroom.

It might be that it’s too early for an ethics follow-up, suggests Jim Brandt, president of the Baton Rouge-based Public Affairs Research Institute. He says it could be another year or so until the state begins seeing any tangible benefits — or drawbacks — from the new laws. “We don’t have a track record yet for modifying or eliminating any of the reforms,” says Brandt.

Nonetheless, it’s always a good time to discuss campaign finance, which Brandt says Jindal skipped over last year. There’s also the possibility of opening up more records to public view in the governor’s office, a concept PAR backed in 2008 and Jindal opposed, leaving Louisiana with the distinction of being amongst the worst states in the nation when it come to accessing the executive branch.

Then there are those proposals that got 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 any post that requires close interaction with the Legislature. Instead, presently on the books is a law that bans officials from entering into contracts with the state for one year following their resignation.

Since the law was passed, former Rep. Don Trahan, a Lafayette Republican, 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 Dem, made a similar move. More recently, Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Bourg Democrat, announced he would be pursuing the director’s position with a levee district in Terrebonne Parish, which is also a political subdivision of the state.

Dupre says he recognizes that there might be a potential conflict of interest, which is why he plans on filling out one of the new disclosure statements in the Senate that identifies the potential conflict and prohibits him from voting on any legislation related to it, which could include the state’s major budget bills. And based on the law, that’s all he’ll need to do. “If it was a private employer, there would be a prohibition,” says Kathleen Allen, deputy general counsel of the state Ethics Board.

Two weeks ago, Allen said she hadn’t heard any new ideas for the upcoming session come out of the governor’s office. That was around the same time that Jindal was selected to deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s first address to Congress. So it’s possible that his mind was in other places.

Maybe Jindal can throw in a line or two about ethics reform, even if it is a national stage. After all, ethics reform is more than just campaign fodder and stylish rhetoric, especially in a place like Louisiana. Or Illinois. Or in Congress. It’s just like Jindal’s shiny, red tie; it’ll never go out of style.