Gov. Jindal’s rhetoric sharpens La. divisions

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March 12, 2009

By taking a staunch opposition stance to the federal stimulus package, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has solidified conservative support and attracted national attention. But he’s created new partisan political problems for himself at home.

Democratic lawmakers bristled at Jindal’s criticisms of the $787 billion stimulus plans crafted by President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress, and they’ve accused the governor of playing national politics to the detriment of Louisiana.

The burgeoning partisan split in a Capitol that often tries to steer clear of such spats threatens to blow up on Jindal in a regular legislative session that already was going to be contentious because of hefty budget cuts and lingering irritation from previous Jindal vetoes.

“We have a governor who has his eyes on the White House three years from now. Gov. Jindal needs to take care of our house now and worry about the White House later,” Rep. Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette, said recently.

In national interviews, Jindal talks glowingly of Louisiana’s ability to work across party lines. By striking a partisan tone and becoming one of the poster children for the national GOP, Jindal – often mentioned as a future presidential contender – isn’t exactly practicing what he preaches.

Now, Democratic lawmakers in the Louisiana Legislature are complaining about the rhetoric. And while Democrats were criticizing on the steps of the state Capitol, the Republican legislative delegation put out a statement of support for Jindal, further showcasing the divide.

The divisions could create problems for Jindal with a Legislature still bristling about the governor’s veto of their pay raise last year and his removal of millions of dollars in their pet projects from this year’s budget.

Jindal gave lawmakers looking for a way to retaliate a rallying topic when they begin their next regular session April 27.

Among the most vocal critics is the House’s second highest-ranking member: House Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans. She’s accused Jindal of being irresponsible and of putting political posturing above the needs of Louisiana citizens.

Jindal calls his stance on the stimulus a fundamental divide between Republicans and Democrats about government intervention, insisting it’s not just partisan grandstanding or an attempt to raise his profile nationally.

“This is a deep philosophical disagreement about the proper role of government,” he said last week.

But Jindal’s tough talk against the stimulus nationally isn’t really panning out locally.

In his nationally-televised response to Obama’s address to Congress, Jindal called the stimulus irresponsible and said there should be less government intervention in the country’s economic woes.

In the days before the speech, the governor outlined $98 million in stimulus money he planned to reject, money to expand unemployment benefits to people who currently aren’t eligible.

However, with the national Republican speech over and Louisiana’s budget problems looming, Jindal is acknowledging he intends to tap into large amounts of stimulus money, most of it to help balance the state’s budget over the next two years.

The Jindal administration announced last Wednesday it would use at least $2.4 billion of the estimated $3.5 billion to $4 billion share of the stimulus Louisiana is eligible to receive.

Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, Jindal’s top budget adviser, said the governor plans to use Medicaid, education, transportation and general bailout dollars, along with several other pools of smaller stimulus funds. Davis said the rest of the stimulus dollars still were under review, meaning the governor may end up accepting much of that as well.

So, the issue of the stimulus money may largely turn out to be moot when the rhetoric is replaced with the governor’s actions. But that may not be enough to satisfy lawmakers angered by the debate.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.