BATON ROUGE BADDIES
Was Bobby Jindal Worse for Louisiana Than Hurricane Katrina?
How the erstwhile governor spent all his state’s rainy-day money and left it in massive debt.
Yeah, a candidate for president of the United States encouraging mob violence at his own rallies is pretty despicable. But for my money, maximum despicability this week was attained not by Donald Trump but by Bobby Jindal, who destroyed the state of Louisiana.
You probably know the story in its broad outlines. When he was governor, Jindal kept cutting taxes and cutting taxes and cutting taxes. On the rich, that is. And to some extent for the middle class, but it was the wealthy who really made out.
When Jindal became governor in 2008, the state had a surplus of around $1 billion. Why? Because the state’s hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone 1 percenters produced waterfalls of wealth that trickled down to the whole of the people, just the way conservatives say it’s supposed to work? No. Louisiana had a surplus because of the evil federal government—that is, all the assistance money, the kind many Republicans vote against when it’s for blue states, that came in after Katrina. So Jindal had Monopoly money, courtesy of the very entity he and all Republicans make their careers by demonizing.
What did he do with it? More money to LSU, to offset tuition increases, maybe? Build hospitals and highways to beat the band, like the old Kingfish did? Anything in the way of far-sighted public investment? Nope. Tax cuts. Loads of them. Oh, and what we call “tax expenditures,” too—tax credits that a government hands out to both individuals and businesses.
The surplus fizzled quickly. Undeterred, in 2013, Jindal proposed getting rid of the state’s income tax entirely, replacing it with sales taxes, which hit the poor much harder than anyone else, since poor people spend a far bigger percentage of their income just buying stuff. Then oil prices plummeted, which is the one thing that happened that isn’t Jindal’s fault; but developments like that are why states have rainy-day funds, which Louisiana has shot through. By 2015, the old surplus had become a $1.6 trillion deficit. The people at the top were happy, still paying far less in taxes than they had been, but the only thing trickling down to everyone else were the whopping budget cuts to state services.
Why did all this happen? In part, of course, because Jindal, like so many of the rest of them, is an ideologue who drinks the Kool-Aid of supply-side economic theory. And in part because he was intent on running for president, and to run for president as a Republican governor, you have to have amassed a record of off-the-charts tax cuts. It’s the cover charge. You don’t even get in the door unless you’ve done that.
So Jindal ran, and humiliated himself, as anyone with half a brain knew he was going to do, frittering away even more money from those stupid enough to have written him a check. And he’s not governor anymore. And what is Louisiana left with? The biggest financial crisis in the country by far. Sam Brownback’s Kansas was, and still is, bad. Ditto Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. But Louisiana takes the dubious gold.
The state agency that investigates child abuse already has one-third fewer employees than before all this madness started. And higher education is a nightmare. State funding of higher ed is down a barely believable 44 percent.
And now comes the real whopper. How is the state trying to make up the money? By raising the sales tax! It’ll go up, albeit only for a while, from four cents to five. So here’s the GOP message to the poor people of Louisiana: We threw this party for the rich people. It ran a little over-budget. And now you have to pay for it! Why you? Well, because we can’t ask the rich to pay. Because then we’d be breaking the cardinal rule of Republican politics. And let’s face it, a lot of you are black, and you don’t vote for us anyway. And those of you who are white, well, yeah, we’re making you pay, but remember, Jesus and guns and gay people and all that. We’re all that stands between you and the deviants.
I swear to God, Trump may be a proto-fascist, but I can mount a serious argument that this is worse. OK, maybe I can’t. When I stop to think about the possibility of a national goon squad going into homes and breaking up families and sending the abuela and the elder daughter back to Guatemala, I guess I can’t. But by cracky this is close. Destroying a state’s public institutions so that a few thousand rich people could keep more of their money certainly counts as immoral in my book. Hell, not my book. THE book, that one I’m sure so many Louisianans cherish.
And Trump, whatever other malignancy he might visit upon the nation, probably wouldn’t be this heartless. Once he gets the undesirables as he defines them thrown out, he’d probably not push for the kinds of tax cuts that all the other Republicans would, including the man who remains seemingly his only serious rival, Ted Cruz. So this is the choice today’s Republican Party gives us—between neo-fascist cultural politics and reactionary, ruinous fiscal politics. And a creepily big chunk of the country wants both.