Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is on a path to finish the job Hurricane Katrina started, destroying the public infrastructure that served, however imperfectly, poor and working-class New Orleans residents.
Jindal, the wunderkind who is being touted as conservatism’s rising new star and an at-least-half-serious contender for being John McCain’s running mate, has openly embraced some of the most extreme components of the right’s agenda, from tax cuts for the wealthy to public funding of private and religious schools. The New Orleans area can least afford to be the staging ground for a bankrupt conservative ideology, but Jindal is zealously leading the state into the void nonetheless, even to the point of criticizing President Bush for not being right-wing enough.
The impact of the ideological decisions coming out of the governor’s office for many of the people of New Orleans, as they approach the third anniversary of the hurricane that devastated their city, is that to the extent that the city is being rebuilt, it is not being rebuilt for them. "We’re getting the message that he is not open to us," Beth Butler, lead Louisiana organizer for ACORN, told me in an interview this week.
The signals are loud and clear as Jindal presides over the dismantling of public infrastructure for education, health care and housing.
With Jindal’s blessing, the majority of New Orleans schoolchildren are now lab rats in a massive conservative experiment in private and charter school education. More than half of the 79 public schools that have been reopened since the hurricane — there were 128 schools before Katrina struck — are now charter schools. On top of that are the 63 private and parochial schools operating in the parish, which Jindal wants to support through a $10 million voucher plan. In an article on New Orleans charter schools in The Washington Post this week, Leigh Dingerson, education team leader for the Center for Community Change in the District, called the result "a flea market of entrepreneurial opportunism that is dismantling the institution of public education in New Orleans."
The Post noted that the charter schools fight to scoop up the best teachers and attract private funding to supplement their budgets. School enrollment data collected by the Brookings Institution for its report, "The New Orleans Index," show that 18 of the charter schools, the ones outside what’s known as the Recovery School District, educate a lower percentage of poor and African-American students than the remaining public schools (which, incidentally, have a total white enrollment of 68 students — less than one percent of the total). Children with special educational needs are being virtually abandoned, according to Butler. "There is a whole group of children who have been redlined out of the school population," she said.
The conditions set up the remaining public schools for failure—and therefore creating more grist for the conservative narrative about the evils of public schools.
The state is also not taking steps to rebuild what had been a troubled but nonetheless vital public health network. The 550-bed Charity Hospital, a major provider of health care for low-income New Orleans residents, remains closed, and Jindal has refused to support rebuilding the facility at anything near its former size, despite the recommendations from health experts at Louisiana State University that said the area now needs a 484-bed facility. A clue to Jindal’s motivation here is in an interview he did with The Washington Times in May. There he said that the campaign President Bush and Republicans in Congress waged to blocked an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program was a "great example " of how "the Republican Party stopped being the party of ideas. "
"The Democrats had their ideas, but the Republicans said, ‘No, we don’t want to spend that much money. We don’t want to cover as many children.’ As opposed to saying, ‘Hey look, we think the delivery system is wrong. We agree that children should be covered, but we want to do it through a private health plan. We want to help poor families afford private care. We don’t want bureaucracies making health care decisions.’ "
The reflexive anti-government attitude in Jindal’s comments helps explain why the state has not worked with New Orleans to replace the public health care network that existed before the storm. Instead, Jindal’s health care advisers are proposing using Medicaid funds to finance a managed care network for the poor. If Jindal doesn’t want "bureaucracies making health care decisions," then he would not be proposing to perpetuate an HMO system in which private-sector bean-counters, accountable to financiers and stockholders rather than patients or the public interest, ultimately decide who gets care and how much they get.
Jindal knows that the private sector has no financial interest in providing care to a low-income, uninsured or underinsured population, many of whom have chronic health problems exacerbated by the psychological stresses of Katrina’s aftermath. At best, he would paper over the problem by giving people vouchers that would cover a fraction of their health-care needs, thus forcing low-income people to forgo care they can’t afford and can’t get donated to them.
Also, as homelessness in New Orleans has by some estimates doubled since Katrina struck, federal and state leaders have collectively failed to address the need for massive amounts of affordable housing. Housing activists have complained that public housing buildings are still barricaded that could easily be fixed to provide at least temporary housing while new housing is built. The barrier, again, is an ideological aversion to public investment in housing and an overreliance on faith in the private sector. Anemic mandates for developers to build lower-priced hosuing units have been ineffectual in the face of soaring home prices and rents, and the only lifeline for working-class residents is federal funding for housing vouchers that Congress is struggling to approve.
In one of his latest exploits, Jindal has joined the Republican-dominated state legislature in pushing a tax cut that mirrors the disastrous and regressive Bush administration tax cuts. Last week the state House of Representatives approved doubling the threshold for the state’s 6 percent tax rate; instead of kicking in at $50,000 a year for joint filers and $25,000 for single filers, it would kick in at $100,000 for joint filers and $50,000 for single filers.
The impact of this tax change is that the higher the income, the greater the tax benefit. Democrats in the Legislature wanted to take a different approach, eliminating state taxes on the first $12,500 of income, which would have targeted tax relief on lower-income people. But conservatives rejected that approach. One of the Republicans justified his opposition with a bit of moralizing: "It’s critical that all people help contribute a little . . . to the taxation base in this state, because it engages people in government."
But they don’t want struggling New Orleans residents to be too engaged in government, because they might expect government to actually deliver on promises made by Jindal and by President Bush to not only rebuild what had been lost during the hurricane but to rebuild it for the people who had suffered the loss.
The American Prospect’s Mori Dinauer uncovered this note of praise of Jindal from Rush Limbaugh: "Bobby Jindal, the new governor of Louisiana, is the next Ronald Reagan." The title fits, given Reagan’s disdain for the poor and for people of color. (Though it’s unlikely that Reagan ever included performing exorcisms on his resume.) Add Jindal’s unconditional opposition to abortion under any circumstances (15 years old and raped? Tough.), his support for teaching the doctrine of "intelligent design" in public schools and his opposition to civil rights protections for gay and lesbian people, and you have a perfect storm of ideological disaster for the New Orleans and the state.
But, like Reagan, Jindal can be smooth, charming and even disarming. As the shock of Katrina recedes from the collective memory and as the recovery effort continues to boil in a murky stew of inertia, Jindal is well equipped to be the next great facade for conservatism — as long as no one is asking questions about what’s behind the front.