Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal wants you to know, if elected president, he’s qualified to take on the federal budget because he slashed his state’s taxes and spending during his almost eight years as governor.
Touting his presidential bona fides on Fox News, Jindal fended off host Bret Baier’s skeptical questions about Louisiana’s dreadful fiscal condition by bragging about his budgetary achievements. “We have balanced our budget eight years in a row without raising taxes,” Jindal said. “Largest tax cut in our state’s history. Income tax cut. Secondly, we have cut our state budget 26 percent, $9 billion.”
If you’re a potential GOP caucus-goer in Iowa, or a primary voter in New Hampshire or South Carolina, that probably sounds rather appealing.
The only problem is it’s not within a mile of the truth.
While Jindal did slash income taxes on middle-income and wealth individuals during his first year as governor, those cuts blew an annual $800 million hole in the state’s budget. During almost every year of Jindal’s two terms, the state has careened from one fiscal crisis to another. To close the recurring revenue gap, Jindal also slashed spending on higher education, more than any other state but Arizona.
In truth, Jindal ended most fiscal years with what Moody's Investors Service called a “structural” budget deficit, meaning that he balanced the books only after raiding various trust funds – money intended for specific purposes, not for balancing the state’s general fund – and by selling off state assets.
For example, Jindal’s 2014-15 fiscal year budget ended with a $141 million structural deficit and contained almost $1 billion in one-time money. Jindal’s final budget has $636 million in non-recurring revenue.
This from the man who once compared balancing the budget with one-time money to “using your credit card to pay your mortgage.”
All his fiscal mismanagement finally caught up with Jindal during the state’s 2015 legislative session. To close a $1.6 billion revenue shortfall – which would have devastated higher education and health care – Jindal agreed to increase a variety of taxes by about $720 million during this year’s legislative session.
Inexplicably, however, Jindal still clings to the absurd claim that he never increased taxes. His former chief of staff, now head of the state’s major business organization, strongly disagrees, as does the Louisiana Chemical Association, which is suing the state over what it says are Jindal’s unconstitutional utility tax increases.
Perhaps that’s why Jindal constantly throws up his 26 percent budget cut smoke screen. Whatever you can say about his disastrous fiscal stewardship of Louisiana, Jindal will remind you that he slashed state spending by 26 percent.
In November 2014, Jindal appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and said: “Look at what we’ve done in Louisiana. So now, we’ve cut our state budget 26 percent, cut the number of state employees 34 percent.”
A March 2015 op-ed in USA Today, Jindal wrote, “Our state budget is nearly $9 billion smaller, with over 30,000 fewer state workers, than when we took office in 2008.”
In March 2015, he told CNBC’s John Harwood: “We've cut the size of government 26 percent.” The same month, according to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, “Jindal touted his conservative credentials Friday, saying he’s cut state government 26 percent, largely by eliminating 30,000 government jobs.”
In May 2015, he told the Washington Examiner: “In Louisiana we've cut our budget 26 percent, we've got 30,000 fewer state government employees than the day I took office.”
Later in May on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Jindal said, “George, we've cut our budget 26 percent, over 30,000 fewer state government employees.”
The problem with all these statements is that they are patently false, as demonstrated by the records of Jindal's own Division of Administration.
It is also not true, as Jindal wrote in USA Today, that he has cut the state’s budget by $9 billion. Nor has he truly cut the state’s payroll by 30,000 (the state is still funding many of those employees after Jindal privatized the state’s public hospital system).
It’s Jindal’s boast about his budget-cutting prowess, however, that is most egregious.
The 2007-08 budget that Jindal inherited from his predecessor, Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco, contained total expenditures of $28.59 billion, including $25.97 billion in general appropriations. Blanco’s final budget also included a surplus of $865 million (which Jindal and legislators promptly spent during his first year as governor.)
Jindal’s first full budget year, however, was the 2008-09 budget, which had $25.06 billion in total state expenditures, including $23.3 billion in general appropriations. Jindal’s most recent complete budget year (2014-15) contained total state expenditures of $25.84 billion, including $23.81 billion in general appropriations.
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).
Jindal, however, is certainly comparing his most recent budget to the last budget of his predecessor. That budget contained $28.59 billion in total state expenditures. Here’s the problem: Jindal’s last complete budget is only $2.75 billion smaller than that figure.
That’s not bad, but nowhere near a 26 percent cut. If Jindal had actually slashed his state’s budget by 26 percent, as he claims, his most recent complete budget would have been $21.15 billion, not $25.06 billion.
So, the difference between Jindal’s most recent budget and Blanco’s last budget ($2.75 billion) is a 9 percent cut in state expenditures.
And here's the kicker: Whatever budget reductions Jindal achieved appears to have come primarily from a decrease in federal funding flowing into the state’s coffers (something largely out of Jindal’s control).
Blanco’s last budget contained $12.88 billion in federal funds. Jindal’s last budget contains $10.07 billion in federal funds – a decrease of $2.81 billion. That is greater, of course, than the $2.75 billion difference in Blanco’s last budget and Jindal’s most recent.
So, where did Jindal get this 26 percent figure? Apparently, the first time Jindal bragged about cutting the budget by 26 percent was in the official statement introducing his 2012-13 state budget: “[T]he overall state budget has decreased by about 26 percent over the past four years.”
The figure that Jindal still touts – as recently as July 12 – is a number from a budget document he presented in the spring of 2012 – more than three years ago.
Despite no evidence to back his budget cut claims, Jindal has repeatedly boasted – without challenge – this manifestly false assertion about his budget-cutting prowess.
Did Jindal cut his state’s budget by 26 percent? Not even close. His own budget figures disprove his assertion.
Perhaps the better question, however, is why do national news organizations continue to allow Jindal to make this false claim without challenge?