Nowadays, states are often referred to as "laboratories of democracy," based on a line from Justice Louis Brandeis stating federalism allows that "a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."
Implicit in this formulation is the scientific method—trying things out, and learning from the results. But science is in ill repute with the increasingly rigid, ideological GOP these days. For them, the question of what's to be learned is not how to produce beneficial results, but how to repackage and sell disasters as shining examples of “success.”
Which helps explain how it comes that two of America's most ambitious GOP governors are now deep in denial that their imaginary budget schemes lie in ruins.
As their state's legislative sessions came to an end, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal could both claim they were about to sign balanced budgets—by law, they had no choice—but Brownback did so only with a massive sales tax hike, while Jindal raided the piggy bank for one-time funds that will only make things more difficult for his successor.
Both men deeply antagonized their state legislatures in the process—legislatures dominated by their own party. Brownback once harbored White House dreams, but has since put away childish things. Jindal has yet to grow up. And why should he? He's much more popular in New Hampshire than in his home state, as USA Today noted in May.
Both governors' budget shenanigans are reminiscent of how George W. Bush made the case for WMD in Iraq, but without even the thinnest veil of secrecy hiding the arm-twisting, manipulation and outright lying. Talking points and Fox News headlines—the only justifications GOP spinmeisters care about—leave both men in a credible light for those viewing them at a distance or through a partisan lens.
But on-the-ground blow-by-blow accounts reveal both men as bullies, liars and fools, who've gotten what they wanted—not their original goals, but (barely) face-saving measures—by threatening the most vulnerable and imperiling future generations. In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle story on the budget accord recounted the threats that were raised:
The Brownback administration warned Thursday that it would cut the budget Monday if lawmakers had not acted by then. Officials raised the specter of either a 6.2 percent across-the-board cut, which would cost schools nearly $200 million, or a veto of budgets for the state’s regents universities.
Rep. Jim Ward—a Democrat representing southeast Wichita—tweeted his translation: "Brownback message to Republicans-Do it my way or I shoot the hostages (school kids, college kids, disabled) #ksleg"
And Sen. Jeff Longbine—a Republican representing Emporia—said, “I am sick of being blackmailed.”
Kansas City Star opinion writer Yael T. Abouhalkah provided more details in his blog:
Figuratively, the governor appears willing to shoot the already-beleaguered schools in the foot, making them bear further financial pain because his cherished income tax breaks for businesses have drained money needed to provide crucial state services.
It’s the newest ploy being used by Brownback to force the Kansas Legislature to pass the largest tax increase in state history and close a $400 million budget gap.
On Tuesday, officials in the Kansas City, Kan. ($11 million in potential lost funds), Olathe ($10 million), Shawnee Mission ($8 million) and Blue Valley ($6 million) districts were scrambling to find out what they could do to protect the educational needs of their students.
In addition, higher education leaders were looking at cutbacks of about $50 million.
Brownback repeatedly threatened to veto any attempt to repeal the business income tax breaks, which are now more psychologically important to him than ever. The broad case for cutting taxes has become untenable—Brownback himself pushed for a sales tax increase to 6.65 percent, the legislature settled on 6.5 percent, up from 6.15 percent—leading Brownback to shift ground: taxing income is bad, taxing spending is good.
As the Star story explained:
Brownback praised what he called “a pro-growth tax policy” after its passage. “This bill keeps the state on a path of economic growth, creating well-paying jobs that benefit all Kansans. It continues our transition from taxes on productivity to consumption-based taxes,” he said in a statement.
But this revised claim is utterly bogus. We can see this in broad terms, as Kansas continues to lag behind national job-creation rates, as it has ever since Brownback took office in January 2011. We can understand its bogosity more precisely by taking a close look at what it actually does, as the Kansas Center for Economic Growth did on its website with a May 28 post, “Business Tax Exemption Not a Roadmap to a Stronger Economy,” in which it pointed out:
Less than 1 percent of all Kansas small businesses saw a tax savings of just over $38,000. This might be enough to hire one worker full-time, depending on wage and benefits. But, if you were to hire a full-time employee with that money, after paying for benefits the take-home pay would be $26,600 or about $12.80 an hour. That’s barely above the federal poverty level for a family of three – not a roadmap to a stronger economy.
Given the magnitude of the lie Brownback was pushing, it wasn't enough to just threaten children's education; lawmakers themselves had to be bullied and abused. Daily Kos blogger Chris Reeves, whose Kansas budget coverage has been cited by the Columbia Journalism Review, focused on what the lawmakers had been through after a 4 a.m. final vote:
For one moment, I want to put aside the bill and talk about our citizen legislators, Republicans and Democrats, who subjected themselves to what the Geneva convention refers to as torture - a 24-hour period with no schedule of sleep available of more than 4 contiguous hours.
Such treatment is abhorrent for anyone, of course. But what of those who should err on the side of more rest? A key figure Reeves writes about is Heinz Dierks, a man in his 70s whose wife, Diana Dierks, 71, a moderate Republican, represents Salina. "I'm here to look out for her," Heinz Dierks said. And she was there to do her civic duty—a concept utterly foreign to men like Brownback and Jindal.
In some respects, what happened in Louisiana was even worse. The pure chaos and dysfunction in Louisiana—and Jindal's utter failure as a political leader—was widely commented on by those who cover such things.
The tone was set back on May 20, just after the legislature had definitively killed action on Jindal's proposed so-called religious freedom law, which, like Indiana's hastily withdrawn version, would have been a license to discriminate, when Julia O'Donoghue wrote a piece for the Times-Picayune, “Louisiana lawmakers have trashed Bobby Jindal's legislative agenda.” Not only had legislators rebuffed Jindal on the right to discriminate—the only piece of legislation he mentioned specifically in his opening speech to the legislature this year, and the subject of almost a third of that speech—but they also refused to follow his lead on two other top priorities:
In his opening remarks for the legislative session, Jindal laid out three priorities—the state budget, Common Core and the religious freedom bill. The Legislature hasn't taken his lead of any of these issues, choosing instead to come up with their own solutions to these problems.
However, as the legislature finished up its business, Will Sentell of the Advocate wrote a piece, “Budget problems easily dominate 2015 Legislature,” quoting key legislators and noting that everyone expected the budget “would be the key topic,” but that “bitter and time-consuming debates over how to address the problem all but drowned other topics expected to draw attention.”
In short, the legislature passed a budget, and that was pretty much it. But as Tyler Bridges also reported for the Advocate, “while they solved the immediate crisis, Jindal and legislators fumbled the more arduous task of putting the state’s finances on sounder footing for the coming years,” going on to say:
The $24.5 billion budget passed Thursday night contains so many short-term fixes that next year’s governor and Legislature will inherit a budget deficit of an estimated $1 billion, documents show, and the size of the deficit is only projected to grow in the following years.
In light of all this, not surprisingly, two different lists of winners and losers pegged Jindal as loser in all this, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform as a big winner—though as Louisiana political journalist and historian Robert Mann noted here at Salon, Norquist's smoke-and-mirrors-based victory may well have been Pyrrhic. At its heart lies Jindal's SAVE program, as Mann explained:
Jindal and his staff proposed a convoluted, confusing student fee/tax credit “offset,” devised only so Jindal could claim his actions were “revenue neutral” and, therefore, did not increase taxes. With Norquist’s approval, Jindal pushed the so-called Student Assessment for a Valuable Education (SAVE) Credit Program.
Under SAVE, students will be assessed a $1,500 fee, which will be offset by a $1,500 tax credit. No actual money will change hands, but as the Advocate of Baton Rouge explained, “the SAVE fund would create a tax credit for the $350 million that Jindal could use to offset $350 million of the new revenue that legislators are proposing to raise.” The student fees magically disappear from this accounting, because #Freedom! But the magic will likely have a very short half-life. As Mann goes on to say, “The real impact of what should be called 'the Jindal-Norquist Tax Cover-up Bill of 2015' may be the eventual destruction of ATR’s anti-tax increase pledge.”
In her winners and losers roundup for the Times-Picayune, Julia O'Donoghue made the case for Norquist as winner, stressing his rule-setting role, though noting his embattled national status at the end:
Back in February, Jindal put forward an initial budget proposal that he knew Norquist would approve. The Louisiana Senate also mostly worked within the parameters laid out by Norquist. Every financial decision was shaped by the anti-tax advocate and his supporters.
At one point, some Louisiana legislators reached out to Norquist directly to try to convince him to change his opinion on one piece of legislation. [Story here. Mann's scathing take here.]
Jindal may be courting Norquist because his organization is influential in national Republican politics and the governor is expected to run for president in 2016. But Norquist also has an interest in keeping Jindal on his side, as he faces fallout from Republicans in a few other states—notably Alabama and Kansas.
But Clancy DuBos offered a grittier take at the Best of New Orleans, with his list of “Da winnas & da loozas,” which cited Norquist as a winner because “he has more sway in the Louisiana Legislature than the current governor,” adding hastily that “It’s not because he’s so powerful, but rather because our governor and too many lawmakers are so spineless — proving once again that in politics, as in tennis, it’s possible to win by default.”
As for Jindal, heading up the list of “da loozas,” DuBos left no doubt as to why:
He pitched three priorities on Opening Day: repealing Common Core, passing a “religious freedom” bill, and ending “corporate welfare” (the state-funded inventory tax rebate). He went 0 for 3, gave Louisiana its largest tax hike in memory, spent most of his time campaigning for president, and managed to sink even lower in public opinion polls. His last-minute save of “SAVE” will be repealed in January by the next Legislature and governor, and his post-session claim of “revenue neutrality” will rank alongside George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” as one of the great Orwellian claims by an American politician. More important, the world now knows that Bobby Jindal is the fiscal equivalent of Bernie Madoff — only nobody actually buys into his budgetary Ponzi scheme. If Jindal somehow gets elected president, his policies will put the U.S. economy on par with that of Greece before the end of his first term.
Shifting focus from Jindal to the political environment he's damaged so completely, a case can be made that institutional damage in Louisiana was deeper than in Kansas, but at least politicians have begun to fight back. Hence AP's wrap-up analysis headline “Frayed relations could lead to significant change.” The story by Melinda Deslatte began with the sort of blunt on-the-ground reporting that ought to end Jindal's career:
Frustration, even outright anger, with Gov. Bobby Jindal has been simmering in the Louisiana Legislature for years, building as the Republican governor’s presidential ambitions grew more obvious.
But widespread legislative sentiment that Jindal has been making decisions based on a GOP presidential campaign he’s expected to announce June 24 may have a silver lining for the state, possibly putting limits on the next Louisiana governor’s power and forcing sweeping change for state budget and tax policy.
In the just-ended legislative session, senators enacted changes to their leadership selection process aimed at limiting a governor’s meddling and increasing legislative independence. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate agreed to curtail the broad records exemptions granted to the governor, to provide more information to the public.
And the state’s financial situation — hamstrung by Jindal’s rigid positions on tax discussions — has become so troubled that the next governor elected this fall will almost certainly hold a special session to allow the type of wide-ranging, needed debate on the budget and taxes that lawmakers haven’t had for years.
If the dysfunction in Baton Rouge sounds like Washington, and Jindal's hostile relationship with his legislators sounds like Obama's relationship with Congress, there are two little facts to add to sweeten the mix: The first is that Jindal loves to portray himself as the anti-Obama, and the second is that he may have a point: his hostile relationships are with chambers his own party controls.
Jindal's insistence on being the anti-Obama requires him to produce a conservative policy miracle, and if one can't be created in reality, then every piece of smoke and mirrors must be perfectly arranged and dogmatically defended. (His intensely focused devotion to this is what sets him apart from Brownback.) We've already had a peek at the most absurd example of this, Jindal's SAVE program, but its absurdity needs to be understood as part of a much larger project—a project to make him president. Integral to this project are a set of related claims about how well Jindal has supposedly done in shrinking the size of government—supposedly cutting state payrolls by 30,000 [shifting them to private contractors, actually] and cutting state spending by 26 percent, claims he's repeatedly made to the national political media, such as George Stephanopoulos on ABC's “This Week” on May 31.
But as Mann explained in detail on his blog Something Like the Truth, after that appearance, anyone with an Internet connection could check out state documents and easily see that Jindal was lying. Looking at the budget record during Jindal's time in office, Mann concludes:
Calculating the difference between Jindal’s first full budget year and his most recent complete budget year (2008-09 to 2014-15), total state expenditures actually increased by $780 million ($25.06 billion in 08-09 to $25.84 billion in 14-15).
But that's not the comparison Jindal is making, Mann notes. He's comparing himself to his predecessor, Kathleen Blanco's last year in office—which makes him look better, but still not good enough:
The actual difference between Jindal’s most recent budget and Blanco’s last budget ($2.75 billion) is a mere 9 percent cut in state expenditures.
And here’s the kicker: Whatever budget cutting Jindal has achieved appears to come primarily from a decrease in federal funding flowing into the state’s coffers (something largely out of Jindal’s control).
That's actually an understatement in light of the very next thing Mann tells us:
Blanco’s last budget contained $12.88 billion in federal funds. Jindal’s last budget contains $10.07 billion in federal funds – a drop of $2.81 billion. That figure is greater, of course, than the $2.75 billion difference in Blanco’s last budget and Jindal’s most recent.
So more than 100 percent of the decrease was outside of Jindal's control. I'm really not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, per se. What I do know is that it's proof he's a liar.
In the end, Mann concludes:
Did Jindal cut his state’s budget by 26 percent? Not even close. His own budget figures disprove his claim.
The real question is, why do journalists like Stephanopoulos and other national media figures allow Jindal to keep making this false assertion without ever challenging him?
Whatever the reason, it's a profoundly perverse belief. By trusting whatever a politician says, they give the advantage to whichever one tells the outrageously self-serving lie. It's the worst sort of competition imaginable to encourage. If the aim is to get at the truth, this is exactly the wrong way to go about doing things.
As folks in the media ought to know, the way to get at the truth is to start with reporting facts. Then you assemble them and proceed to make sense of their evolution over time. Mann provides an example of this in a piece published at the Times-Picayune website after the budget deal was done, “Bobby Jindal's disgraceful fiscal legacy” picks out a few highlights that illuminate the recurring themes that have run throughout Jindal's tenure.
Perhaps the most basic of these is a complete inability to think of anything beyond the immediate—or even to see that clearly. It started with spending the surplus left by his predecessor:
In 2008, Jindal inherited an $865 million surplus. He and legislators promptly spent it. That should have been the first hint that he knew little about sound fiscal management.
This was followed by misjudging state revenues, and deciding to cut taxes:
Next, Jindal mistook the post-Katrina revenue boom (due to a massive infusion of federal money) for a permanent economic recovery. So, he slashed income taxes in his first regular session. Combined with ill-advised income tax cuts signed earlier by Gov. Kathleen Blanco, it was a mistake that blew an $800 million hole in the budget and launched us down the road to our present sad condition.
Which in turn created a state of perpetual dishonesty and de facto stealing:
Because he surrendered so much revenue in the beginning, Jindal's budgets have always included obscene amounts of one-time money. Despite bragging that he's balanced every budget, Jindal ended most fiscal years with a "structural" deficit. In other words, he only "balanced" the books by draining various savings accounts and trust funds. Those funds were intended for specific purposes, which did not include serving as piggy banks for times when the state's treasury ran short of cash.
Jindal is hardly unique in this regard. Arnold Schwarzenegger engaged in the exact same sort of short-term juggling act throughout his tenure as governor of California, initiated by blowing a $6.5 billion hole in the budget with his grandstanding rollback of the state's vehicle license fee, then turning to borrowing and gimmickry. The state only regained its long-term fiscal balance after Democrat Jerry Brown was elected in 2010. It's not that Brown succeeded where Schwarzenegger failed, the two men were trying to do fundamentally different things. Schwarzenegger was trying to make everything look good on paper, at least for the moment. Brown was trying to run a state, as a steward of it for future generations.
Although Schwarzenegger was widely seen as an anomalously liberal Republican on issues like gay rights and the environment, his budget record clearly revealed the narrow limits, not of Republican solutions to economic challenges, but of Republicans' ability to even see problems are, as opposed to the secondary and tertiary problems that are entirely of their own making. And the rest of us will be dragged along for the ride, at least as things stand now. As long the national media takes the George Stephanopoulos approach of swallowing GOP lies whole, we will remain mired in failure after failure, without even a clue to what's going on. If we want to stop being clueless—about the problems as well as the solutions—we've got to watch what they do, not what they say.