The atmosphere of corruption came with costs beyond the jokes about governors’ rarely visiting the state’s jails without wearing a prison uniform. After a while, businesses noticed that they were often the tax target of choice, and New Orleans gradually slid down in the rankings of great American cities. As Jindal puts it, as he races to a ceremony at a reopened Ormet alumina-manufacturing plant in Ascension Parish, a New Orleans resident of 50 years ago would have been stunned to see Houston being the effective national capital of the energy industry, to hear Atlanta called “the capital of the New South,” and to know that the nation’s banking industry is anchored to Charlotte, N.C.
Jindal’s stump speech often begins with a high-school reunion in Baton Rouge where he noticed how many of his classmates now lived and worked in Houston or Atlanta or other comparably booming cities across the South. He notes that those who grow up in Louisiana speak with nearly limitless affection for the state’s people, and its culture, music, food, and atmosphere. But if Louisianans can’t find a good job, they move away.
With Katrina, the state learned a brutal lesson that entertaining and corrupt elected officials don’t make good leaders in a crisis. Only after hitting bottom, when the existing traditions of governing, educating, managing, and developing had failed so spectacularly, would the state be ready to take a chance on a 36-year-old Indian-American congressman who went to Oxford.
Jindal’s record has been exemplary: transforming the state’s reputation on ethics and corruption, enacting dramatic cuts in spending without provoking much public outcry, implementing careful reforms to Louisiana’s unique traditional methods of providing health care, creating jobs, overhauling the state’s schools, and, finally, knowing how to deal with crises.
When he took office in 2008, Jindal’s first order of business was reforming the state’s notoriously lax ethics laws. Both on the stump and in conversations with the press, Jindal repeatedly cites a Louisiana State University survey of business executives, conducted before he became governor, asking why they were wary about the state as a site for investment. Nearly 60 percent said they considered “perceptions of government corruption and unethical practices” an important factor. In 2007, Forbes ranked Louisiana the second-worst state to do business in, better only than West Virginia, and the preceding year it had been ranked dead last.
Jindal called a special legislative session and pushed through a package of tough ethics reforms and new limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. Before the reforms, the Center for Public Integrity ranked the state 44th in legislative disclosure requirements; now it ranks the state first.
“For us to go from 44th to first place in ethics and disclosure — we were strict,” Jindal recalls. “You’re going to disclose every income and asset and liability, and elected officials cannot do any business with the state. People said, ‘Why do we have to go this far? Most states don’t go that far.’ The point we were trying to make was, we were one of the worst states for corruption, and we have to clean that up and we’re going to go above and beyond. Could you imagine me calling up a company and saying, ‘Hey, you have to move your company here! We were 44th in ethics last year, but this year we’re 39th!’”
The state government now attracts a different type of manager and leader. When Jindal headed the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals at the ripe old age of 24, he recalls, someone offered to set him up in the future with a high-paying lobbyist job in exchange for a favor. Jindal wondered why the would-be briber thought that, with all the possibilities Jindal had before him, his interest would be in lobbying. Today, many of Jindal’s appointees come from the business world and take significant pay cuts in their new jobs, putting successful private-sector careers on hiatus for a few years. In the old Louisiana, those appointed to state positions often saw their new jobs as pay increases and, most likely, perceived a bribe offer as an unequaled financial opportunity.