Politics & Policy

Draining the Swamp

Jindal's plan to fix government ethics in Louisiana.

New Orleans, La. — When I won $70 playing craps in Shreveport on Saturday night, I was not gambling. I was gaming.

#ad#The distinction is critical, or at least it was when legislators here saw games of chance as the next great hope for the state’s economy. Louisiana’s constitution requires the state legislature to “define and suppress gambling,” a crime that carries a $500 fine and up to six years in prison. So in 1991, the criminal code and the English language were altered in Baton Rouge so that “[t]he intentional conducting or assisting in the conducting of gaming activities upon a riverboat…whereby a person risks the loss of anything of value in order to realize a profit is not gambling…” (Emphasis added.)

“That’s just one example of how creative they can get,” says Rep. Bobby Jindal (R.), the clear frontrunner in this Saturday’s race for governor, and probably the state’s best hope in years for reform of state government. Jindal, a youthful lawmaker who narrowly lost the race for governor in 2003, was not making a point about gambling when he spoke to me. Rather, he was illustrating how rules are routinely made, bent, and broken by Louisiana lawmakers.

For months, Jindal has focused his campaign on ethics reform in Baton Rouge because of the negative effect that corruption has had on business here. Due in part to this corruption, the state recently lost out on automobile factories and a $2.9 billion steel plant that could have brought it thousands of jobs — these industrial giants have opted to locate themselves in neighboring states such as Mississippi and Alabama.

Jindal, operating in what is today an unusual state — a place where good government is the provenance of the Republican Party — has assembled a 31-point plan for dealing with corruption. It is remarkable for how unoriginal the ideas are. This is not a rap on Jindal, but rather a testimony to the incredible number of blatantly corrupt practices that have simply never been banned in Louisiana.

Washingtonians of all political stripes would be surprised to learn just how much corruption is perfectly legal here. For example, state legislators are permitted to receive income as “consultants” for firms that lobby the state government. They can literally “change hats” while standing on the floor of the state House, pitching fellow lawmakers on their clients’ bills, and then saying, “By the way, I’ll see you at our committee hearing tomorrow, when we mark up that bill you’ve been trying to pass for the last five years.” Such a conversation would land any congressman in jail. In Louisiana it is perfectly legal.

It is also legal for legislators to serve as government contractors. They can literally write and vote contracts to their own businesses, provided that they are creative enough to disqualify competitors in the legislative language.

State legislators here are not subject to meaningful disclosure requirements for their sources of earned income. Lawmakers have objected that full disclosure would violate their privacy, but this is a far cry from the hyper-sensitive ethics rules that have governed Washington for years. Even as a member of the Congressional Periodical Press Gallery, I am required to disclose all of my sources of earned income every single year. Congressmen are held to a higher standard, forced to disclose all income by source and amount, as well as most assets and debts.

Given the obvious deficiencies in the state laws — deficiencies that most other states and the federal government remedied ages ago — it would take just a few small successes for a new governor to make an enormous difference.

Louisiana’s political culture is widely recognized — even celebrated — as the nation’s most corrupt. In 1985, novelist and author Walker Percy summed up his state’s problems by noting that “[m]ineral-rich, strategically located Louisiana is in fact one of the poorest states in the country in per-capita income.” Part of the problem, Percy went on, was “that old Louisiana penchant for voting for flamboyant types, upcountry good ol’ boys and Cajun slickers who are long on show biz and short on ethics. As long as the party lasted, the oil flowed, and the good times rolled, it didn’t seem to matter.”

Little has changed in 22 years except that the good times have really stopped. In 2005, Louisiana became the poorest state. Its population was already shrinking proportionally before Hurricane Katrina, and it has now been decimated. The state’s young people have few economic incentives to stay, particularly if they have skills and a college degree.

But after the revelations brought by Hurricane Katrina of government incompetence and corruption, voters finally appear ready to listen to a message of good government, and perhaps throw off “that old Louisiana penchant.”

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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