The order of luncheon speakers for the annual conference of Public Affairs Research Council promised dessert first from James Carville to be followed by the usual dollop of limp vegetables many audience members had come to expect from Gov. Bobby Jindal. Days before, he baffled and irritated the Legislature by opening the session with a campaign speech about how much he hates taxes instead of offering guidance on the serious budget challenge that body faces.
His shirtsleeves turned up and behind tinted glasses, the irascible Carville fired off choice one-liners, such as how quickly Donald Trump became “more annoying than Sarah Palin.” He then gave his big-picture view of not only the urgency of saving the coast but also the economic opportunities to export coastal restoration technology for use in subsiding deltas around the globe. Achieving that, he said, would require, besides congressional appropriations, a greater investment in LSU instead of the succession of budget cuts ordered by the current administration.
His was a hard act to follow, but the surprise of the hour was that Jindal rose to the occasion with one of the strongest speeches he has given this side of the campaign trail, in which he defended his most controversial policy positions.
It was about time. Over the past month, Jindal and his administration have been bashed by a chorus of critics, who have condemned his proposals to sell off prisons and an employee health insurance plan run by the Office of Group Benefits and to merge the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans.
Except for the latter, the Jindal administration has been passive in not explaining why the changes would not hurt those directly affected and would benefit taxpayers as a whole. Leaving that vacuum just invited opponents to ratchet up their criticism and, in the case of Group Benefits, to spin off some creative conspiracy theories about the governor’s plans and motives.
Jindal was forced last week to pull back on the prisons sale because legislators could not accept his plan to use 90% of the proceeds to help fill the gaping hole in the budget.
But with the budget issue off the table, the idea of selling prisons or privatizing operations is not revolutionary, given that some state prisons already are run by outside firms. Jindal compared the $49 per day per inmate the state spends on its prisons to the $24 it pays sheriffs to house prisoners. Even to pay a private firm $30 per day, he told the PAR audience, would be a deal for taxpayers.
The rumors running amok about the sale of the health insurance plan are only to be expected from employees who are rightfully concerned about their coverage. It did not help that the administration has been slow to assure employees and legislators that premiums would not rise, benefits would not be cut and the plan’s accumulated $520 million surplus would not be plundered under any long-term contract to be signed with a private insurer.
Restating that commitment in his speech, Jindal turned to the interests of taxpayers, who put up 75% of employees’ premiums. If a big insurance company pays $150 million or more for that book of business, the whole state would benefit from unlocking that value, which the governor has pledged not to use in this budget. That Louisiana is one of only two states to operate its own insurance plan, he told PAR, is a sound argument against the status quo.
The same can be said for Southern University’s status as the only historically black university system in the nation. Responding to the racially charged issue, Jindal pressed the argument that higher education in New Orleans would be better served by greater coordination of the two under-enrolled and under-performing universities, with Delgado Community College being the portal to direct incoming students to the appropriate institution. Jindal has made that case before, but winning approval of two-thirds of lawmakers requires him to press it more.
While the substance of his arguments will be debated, all that was wrong with the governor’s speech was that he saved it for PAR instead of giving it to those who were waiting to hear it, our elected representatives.