BATON ROUGE — While state lawmakers focused on finances, Gov. Bobby Jindal used his final opening day speech for a Louisiana legislative session Monday to reprise ideas he’s been pushing nationally as he readies a likely presidential campaign.
The Republican governor, speaking to a joint session of the House and Senate, defended his steadfast refusal to raise taxes, struck out against the Common Core education standards and vowed to fight for “religious liberty.”
His relationships with lawmakers frayed and his approval ratings sagging, the term-limited Jindal recapped legislative victories from previous years, saying he and the Legislature have helped the state recover from Hurricane Katrina while improving education and growing the state’s economy.
“Reform is always controversial. Democracy is messy. But the end result has been a stronger, more prosperous Louisiana for our children,” said Jindal, nearing the end of his second term.
Foremost on lawmakers’ minds for the 60-day session is a $1.6 billion budget shortfall that threatens to force deep cuts to health care services and public colleges.
Jindal sidestepped criticism that his financial decisions helped to cause the state’s budget problems, while offering a limited roadmap for closing the gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“I thought it was a nice farewell speech. I think it lacked some specifics for the budget. Right now, what we have is a budget that’s good for about six months, and we’re going to have to find ways to deal with it beyond that, obviously,” said Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, of the budget proposal submitted by Jindal.
The governor wants to decrease more than $500 million in spending on refundable tax credits in which the state writes a check above a business’ tax liability. Jindal called it “corporate welfare” and “wasteful state spending.”
Lawmakers haven’t embraced the proposal and are working on their own ideas, such as shrinking tax breaks for specific industries, closing loopholes that allow companies to skirt taxes or a temporary suspension of tax breaks.
Jindal said he won’t support anything he considers a net increase in taxes, limiting the
options for lawmakers trying to raise money to balance next year’s budget. To get around his self-imposed restrictions, the governor describes caps on refundable tax credits as reductions in state spending, a position supported by national anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
“Our businesses are a great asset. But we cannot stand idly by while companies pay zero in state taxes and then continue getting free taxpayer money from the government on top of it,” the governor said.
Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said lawmakers will try to “stay within those swim lanes” that Jindal set for addressing the budget gap.
But the House Democratic leader, Rep. John Bel Edwards, blamed Jindal’s political ambitions for limiting tax policy discussions in the Legislature.
“He’s made decisions over the last several years that were not in our best interests, but that he calculated might be in his political best interest. I think outsourcing tax and fiscal policy to Grover Norquist is one of those things,” said Edwards, D-Amite, who is running for governor.
Away from the budget discussion, Jindal has a light legislative agenda. He wants to yank the Common Core education standards from Louisiana’s public school classrooms, calling them part of federal efforts to nationalize education.
He faces opposition from Louisiana’s education superintendent and a majority of its state education board members, who say the multistate standards better prepare students for college and careers.
As he courts evangelical Christians, Jindal also is supporting a religious objections proposal, wading into a debate that caused controversy in Indiana and Alabama.
The bill by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City, would prohibit the state from denying licenses, certifications, employment, contracts or tax deductions because of actions a person takes “in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction” about marriage. Jindal said he intends “to fight for passage of this legislation.”
The issue puts Jindal at odds with one of his closest legislative allies, Alario, who said he opposes the measure in its current form, calling it discrimination against same-sex couples. He said he’d take a second look at the measure if it were modified.