Jindal’s gambit

There is no denying that Gov. Bobby Jindal is making a bold gambit to open his second term in office. Proposing an education reform package that promotes the expansion of charter schools and vouchers while effectively sticking his finger directly into the eye of the teachers unions requires significant chutzpah. Yet to simultaneously take on the politically entrenched goliath known as the state’s retirement system is—depending on how it plays out—either genius or suicide.

You may not support what Jindal’s proposing, but you can’t say—as one could during his first four years in office—that he’s playing it safe. Not since Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints began the third quarter of Super Bowl XLIV with an onside kick have we seen such a daring move to open a second half. What’s not yet known is whether Jindal’s gamble will play out as well as Payton’s did two years ago this week.

Jindal’s desire to tackle Louisiana’s failing and fundamentally flawed public education system isn’t all that surprising. Not only do school reform zealots make up a good part of the governor’s inner circle, but, for months, he’s told anyone and everyone that education reform was priority one in the first year of his second term in office.

The Payton-esque surprise is doubling-down with state pension reform.

Seriously, how could anyone see this one-two punch coming from Jindal, considering 1) the play-it-safe, first-term approach, 2) his preoccupation with the national political stage and 3) knowing how much political carnage will take place during an education reform fight that will come to resemble a holy war before it’s over.

After more than a decade of watching governors and legislators almost universally ignore the looming financial disaster that is this state’s unfunded accrued pension liability, it was reasonable to conclude that Jindal, like those before him, would simply punt on a crisis that won’t reach Armageddon status for another 15 or 20 years.

Jindal’s proposal has a lot of moving parts and fine print, but it essentially calls for three primary changes: 1) increasing the amount some 54,000 state workers contribute to their retirement while raising the retirement age to 67 and freezing cost-of-living increases for the foreseeable future; 2) creating a public version of the 401(k) model for most new hires; and 3) merging the two teacher-related retirement systems to reduce overhead expenses.

The governor’s plan is not as ambitious or far-reaching as I or others worried about the state’s $18.5 billion—with a “b”—unfunded liability might like. For example, it does little to reduce the financial liability hanging over our children’s future, though it generally keeps the deficit in check. Also, teachers and public safety officers are exempted from Jindal’s proposed changes, despite the fact the retirement systems of each of those employee groups have substantial financial liabilities that each year only grow larger. His plan, however, is likely the most politically palatable.

So, while far from all that it could be, Jindal’s plan is probably about all this group of legislators can politically stomach. Particularly when the battle will be raging alongside the education reform war. It will be fascinating to see how legislators handle the onslaught of teachers unions and other defenders of Louisiana’s failure of a public education system on one front while protecting their flank against angry and vocal current and retired state workers.

It’s a toss-up over which “reform” battle will be more contentious. Both fights, however, are worth fighting, and Jindal, who I’ve often criticized for playing it safe despite promising a Louisiana miracle, deserves credit for attacking two major obstacles to our long-term economic prosperity.

Perhaps now we know the answer as to why Jindal picked John Alario, a former Edwin Edwards confidant, to be his leader in the state Senate. Alario is many things, including a master political sheepherder. That skill, unquestionably, will be tested later this spring. The question now is whether Alario will be leading his colleagues to historic reforms or political slaughter.

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