BATON ROUGE — The glimmer on Bobby Jindal has faded for most voters as he wraps up his final days as Louisiana’s governor. While the governor has been traveling the state to shine up his eight-year legacy, his tenure appears tarnished by red ink.
The one-time rising Republican star has seen his approval ratings tank, his presidential bid end and his performance as governor marred by financial decisions that left the state careening from one budget crisis to the next.
Barry Erwin, president of the nonpartisan Council For A Better Louisiana, described Jindal’s time in office as “opportunities lost.”
“People had huge expectations, perhaps unrealistic expectations. But I think there’s a sense, really and truly, that we’re emerging in really difficult shape,” Erwin said. “I think the accomplishments probably will get overshadowed by the wreck that the budget is in.”
As his time in office near its Jan. 11 end, Jindal, 44, gives no hint of regret, not an inch of second-guessing his choices.
“I’ve worked as hard as I could for Louisiana,” the term-limited governor said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Every single day I did what I thought was right, and I’m comfortable with the decisions I made.”
The Ivy League-educated son of Indian immigrants, Jindal made history when he took office in 2008. He was the nation’s first elected Indian-American governor and Louisiana’s first nonwhite governor since Reconstruction.
He took over a state battered by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, after Democrat Kathleen Blanco — who had defeated Jindal four years earlier — chose not to run for a second term. Expectations for Jindal soared after his decisive win and a campaign built on reform.
But many now see Jindal as a disappointment. The governor’s approval ratings have fallen to 30 percent or less in recent polls.
“When I talked to people, they saw a guy who seemed to be a whole lot more interested in his personal ambitions than he was in them. And I think that’s how he’s going to be remembered,” said term-limited state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton.
“Certainly he has accomplishments. But anytime the public thinks you put yourself above them, everything else goes away,” Adley said.
Jindal counts among his biggest achievements the privatization of the LSU charity hospital system; the expansion of charter schools and vouchers; and $62 billion in economic development wins estimated to create tens of thousands of new jobs.
Immediately after taking office, the governor worked to improve the state’s image with an overhaul of ethics laws. He cut business taxes and revamped worker training programs, and he poured millions into direct incentives to draw companies to Louisiana.
“He’s one of the best governors arguably the state’s ever had as far as economic development,” said lumber company owner Roy O. Martin, a Jindal donor and one of the governor’s appointees to the Board of Regents.
Jindal describes his key initiatives in ethics, education and economic development as aimed at keeping Louisiana’s children from having to leave the state to pursue their dreams.
“Eight years ago, the challenge was we were losing our sons and daughters. Now, one of our big challenges is we’ve got to train enough people to fill these skilled jobs,” Jindal said.
But the achievements have been drowned out by constant budget challenges.
When he took office, Jindal inherited a more than $1 billion state surplus. Then, a national recession, Jindal’s backing of the largest individual income tax cut in state history and the ballooning costs of tax breaks siphoned money from the treasury. Plummeting oil and gas prices worsened the hit.
Backed by lawmakers, the governor stripped $700 million in state financing from higher education and chipped away at funding for programs across state government. But he refused to support anything he considered a tax increase and used patchwork maneuvers to pay for government programs.
Jindal defends his management of the state’s finances, saying the state received credit upgrades on his watch. He said he decided to grow the private sector economy rather than the government and counts as an achievement the reduction of more than 30,000 state workers.
“I think the approach we took was absolutely right,” Jindal said. “We held the line on taxes. We were willing to cut government.”
Jindal disagrees with suggestions that budget cuts — or his presidential ambitions — took a toll on his approval ratings with voters, insisting the nosedive is tied to a 2012 education revamp that rankled teacher unions and public school leaders.
But Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who has tracked the governor’s approval ratings, disagrees that education was Jindal’s weak spot with voters.
People “didn’t think that their governor should not be in the state when we can’t afford to fund education and health care properly, and it really turned voters off,” he said. “The more he traveled, the more he campaigned out of state, the more his popularity fell.”