BATON ROUGE A child’s red bicycle, two-wheel scooters and a tennis racket were lined up neatly just outside the French doors leading to the back yard of the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday.
The riding toys and sports equipment were a clear reminder that Gov. Bobby Jindal, despite a long political resume that includes two terms in Congress and two terms as governor, is still a young man raising three school-age children with his wife, Supriya.
“My children don’t think I’m young,” said Jindal, 43, laughing, “but we try to give the kids as normal a life as possible.”
Jindal bemoaned another soccer rain-out and was likely to miss any weekend makeup games because of his speaking engagement at a conservative national security summit Saturday in South Carolina.
It’s one of a growing number of trips Jindal is taking outside the state as he prepares for a possible presidential run, a jet-setting schedule that has drawn growing criticism back home.
Criticism is something relatively new for the young governor.
Though he lost his first election in 2003 to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Jindal rebounded to win consecutive congressional elections in 2004 and 2006 with 78 percent and 88 percent of the vote.
He followed by winning the 2007 governor’s race outright with 54 percent in the primary and was re-elected by a landslide in 2011.
Jindal considered both elections a mandate, and the Legislature and voters largely agreed, allowing him to make structural changes to health care and public education in Louisiana.
Gone is the charity hospital system Huey Long built. Children in failing public schools can now receive vouchers, or scholarships as Jindal refers to them, to attend private and parochial schools.
But such radical change, even if initially welcomed, weighs on voters and requires considerable political capital to be spent.
That, combined with the normal voter fatigue that comes in the throes of any second term, has caused Jindal’s popularity to plummet within the state. A recent poll placed his approval rating at 27 percent, worse than President Barack Obama’s.
There will be no sea-changing reforms from Jindal during his final legislative session that begins April 13, only a chance to somehow cobble together a budget with a $1.6 billion hole through methods that may further dent Jindal’s popularity.
But the governor said he was elected to do hard things, and Jindal believes his legacy in Louisiana will return him to favor in his home state.
“I think the state is moving in the right direction,” he said without hesitation. “I’m confident I’m leaving Louisiana in better shape than I found it.”
Many of his critics say Jindal has already left Louisiana early to run for president, spending 165 days out of state in 2014, according to one publication’s calculation.
He dismissed the criticism.
“I believe I’ve been to more places in Louisiana more often than any other governor before me,” Jindal said. “I’ve been to places in Louisiana where people have said, ‘You’re the first governor we’ve ever seen in my parish.’ That was important for me. I don’t think you can do the job sitting behind a desk, and I haven’t.
“I’ve spent time outside of the state campaigning against President Obama’s policies, and I think that’s good for the state because issues like the Keystone (XL) pipeline are important to Louisiana. I continue to do my job, but I selectively accept invitations for speaking engagements when I can.”
Jindal said he is most proud of his economic development record, and the governor is able to point to signature manufacturing and technology projects throughout the state landed during his administration.
Among them: IBM in Baton Rouge and Monroe; CSC in Bossier City; Benteler Steel in Shreveport; Enquero Inc. in Lafayette; American Specialty Alloys in Pineville; Sasol Ltd. in Lake Charles; and Gameloft in New Orleans.
Jindal said special sessions on ethics reform and the removal of some business taxes helped elevate Louisiana’s reputation and position in business climate publications, and he beefed up programs within the Louisiana Department of Economic Development.
“Here are the results,” he said. “More than $60 billion in investment and 90,000 jobs created in eight years.”
It didn’t hurt that Louisiana once had hundreds of millions of dollars in a Mega-Project Development Fund to be used as incentives to attract new businesses. Though the fund has been depleted, Jindal said the foundation for growth remains intact.
“Bottom line is we’ve done several things, but most important was a commitment to create an environment to grow jobs,” he said. “We knew we had to change that environment. Those changes remain in place.”
Jindal admitted to some mistakes, noting he told legislators he would stay out of the debate to increase their own pay during his first year in office.
Lawmakers passed a bill to give themselves raises, which the governor vetoed after the public revolted.
“It was the right thing to do to veto the bill, but I should have gotten engaged earlier,” he said. “I apologized to (lawmakers) and the people for letting it get that far.”
He also had some legislative failures despite his clout. The biggest was Jindal’s proposal in 2013 to eliminate the state’s personal and corporate income tax while raising the state’s sales tax to make his plan work.
It never got traction, and he withdrew it before the legislative session started.
“We haven’t batted 1,000,” he said. “I tried to eliminate income tax, but the Legislature said I was moving too fast. We don’t get every bill approved, but we’re going to run out of time before we run out of things to do. I tell my staff if we’re batting 1,000 we’re not trying hard enough. We needed to make big changes.”
Jindal stands by his health care and education reforms, both which remain works in progress.
“In health care we took an antiquated system and modernized it with public-private partnerships,” he said. “The old model wasn’t sustainable and didn’t produce the results needed. It’s very clear the clinical results are better.
“In public education, we now have options like scholarships (vouchers for students who want to leave a failing public school to attend private or parochial schools), course choice and an expansion of charter schools. What we’ve seen is record high retention rates — dramatic improvement in retention and graduation rates.”
Though nothing so dramatic will happen during the governor’s final legislative session, he said, “There are other things we want to do.”
Among them, he said, is trying to separate the state from Common Core, the education reform he originally helped pass.
“Common Core started as voluntary state-led standards,” he said. “I’m still for that. Most people are. But it was a bait and switch. Now if states want waivers from No Child Left Behind or other funding from the federal government they have to participate.
“It’s not legal to blackmail us. The federal government can’t use states’ dollars to force states to follow Common Core. It stopped being voluntary. So I don’t feel like the federal government should control curriculum, and I don’t think the standards themselves are as high as we were led to believe.”
He also offered some suggestions to mitigate the $1.6 billion budget deficit, including the elimination of some corporate tax credits, especially those that allow companies to receive a bigger credit than their tax liability.
“We’ve provided a lot of options (to the Legislature),” he said
But Jindal said he won’t support any option that includes a tax increase unless, like a proposed cigarette tax, it can be somehow offset.
“There are always people who want to raise taxes when times get tough,” he said. “But we’re going to tighten our belts yet again and find ways to mitigate cuts to higher education and health care without raising taxes.”
As for when Jindal will decide whether to run for president, he said, “Probably in the next couple of months.”
Whether he runs for president or not, Jindal said he believes he can make an impact in his final months as governor.
“I want to finish strong,” he said.
Follow Greg Hilburn on Twitter @GregHilburn1