NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was caught in a jam.
He had to plug a $1.6 billion projected deficit for next year — 20 percent of Louisiana’s general fund — and he had to do it without violating an anti-tax pledge he made to Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), the influential conservative group headed by Grover Norquist. Jindal’s anti-tax credentials have been a prime selling point in his unannounced campaign for president.
Jindal’s solution: eliminating $526 million in tax rebates, most notably for the state’s business inventory tax. Norquist’s group blessed the decision, concluding that ending tax rebates would not amount to a tax increase.
But that distinction has prompted ridicule from state lawmakers and political commentators on both the right and the left, who accuse Jindal of selling out the state’s tax policy to Norquist.
State Rep. Jay Morris, a conservative Republican from Monroe, called Jindal’s approach “insane” in an e-mail to supporters, writing that “the ATR’s way of determining these things can be illogical, inconsistent and downright misleading to the public . . . or in the opinion of some . . . crazy.”
In an interview, Morris said other lawmakers have told him that “what I put in the e-mail is what others were thinking and saying privately.”
Norquist, thanks to what his group calls the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, has become a powerful figure in Washington and in state capitols across the country. The group claims that dozens of congressmen and senators — as well as hundreds of state elected officials — have pledged not to raise taxes. Norquist also hosts a conservative political forum in Washington every Wednesday that adds to his cachet.
“He is very influential in the tea party and beyond,” said former congressman Bob Livingston (R-La.), now a lobbyist who heads a super PAC supporting Jindal’s White House ambitions. “Any member of Congress who has signed the pledge but then votes for a tax increase will hear about it from his constituents, often instigated by Norquist.”
Norquist did not respond to an interview request after his spokesman was sent a list of questions.
Jindal first signed the group’s anti-tax pledge in 2003 when he narrowly lost a race for governor. During his subsequent time as a congressman and now governor, Jindal has opposed any proposed tax increase, including a 2013 measure that would have cost cellphone users an extra 24 cents a year.
“I take my commitments really seriously,” Jindal said in an interview this month. “You know, I made a commitment I’m not going to raise taxes in Louisiana. I said that in ’03, I said that again in ’07, and I think what surprises people is that I kept my promise.”
During his numerous campaign trips outside of Louisiana, Jindal boasts that the state has lowered taxes while he has been governor, has 30,000 fewer employees on the payroll and that private-sector employment has grown at 2
But revenues have not been enough to make up for the cuts, a problem also faced by at least two other Republican governors: Sam Brownback of Kansas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is also considering a presidential bid.
In Jindal’s case, the projected budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year has reached $1.6 billion, even after he and the Louisiana legislature have slashed aid for public colleges and universities, drained the state’s reserve funds and initiated a tax amnesty program. Jindal inherited a $900 million surplus when he came into office.
On a per-student basis, the cuts to the public colleges and universities under Jindal have been the deepest of any state over the past eight years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Jindal’s latest budget would cut that spending by $211 million more, a proposal that lawmakers will consider in the annual legislative session that starts April 13. He has also caused an uproar by failing to include enough money in the budget to fund Louisiana’s presidential primaries in 2016.
On his tax rebate proposal, Jindal points to support from ATR. Patrick Gleason, the group’s director of state tax affairs, wrote in a piece for Forbes magazine that “changing a tax credit from refundable to non-refundable is a spending cut, not a tax increase.”
Business trade groups disagree, none more forcefully than the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Its president is Stephen Waguespack, who was formerly Jindal’s chief of staff and executive counsel.
“If you remove the rebate, that is a tax increase,” Waguespack said.
House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, a Republican from Lake Charles, has sided with Jindal, while Senate President John Alario, a Republican from Westwego, would like to eliminate the business inventory tax altogether. That move would be costly to local governments because they are the recipients of the proceeds.
Some lawmakers are especially incensed that Jindal privately sought approval from Norquist, but not them, before announcing the tax plan in February.
“If Louisiana has to depend on national groups to bail us out of our problems, then God help us,” State Rep. Tim Burns, a Republican committee chairman from Mandeville, wrote in a recent blog post. “The good news is that I have been in discussion with many of my colleagues in the legislature and we are ready to roll up our sleeves and tackle our fiscal problems, despite the Scarlet T.”
On the other side of the aisle, former Bill Clinton aide and longtime Democratic consultant James Carville, who lives in New Orleans, attacked Jindal in a letter to the editor of the Reveille, the student newspaper of Louisiana State University, his alma mater.
“Your future earnings and the quality of your education is being adversely affected by the fact that a pledge was signed to a Washington operator by the name of Grover Norquist that under no conditions could taxes be raised,” Carville wrote.
Norquist tweeted out a response to the letter: “Honored by one’s enemies: James Carville is very mad I stand with taxpayer hero Gov. Jindal against higher taxes.”
David A. Fahrenthold in South Carolina contributed to this report.