Want a 70% Approval Rating?

Let’s be real.  One of the things that often gets CF into trouble is that from the outside, it seems like we never need to worry about whether the free-market public policies we put forth are popular, whereas those we want to influence (policymakers in Harrisburg) have to win reelection in a purple state.  Therefore, many people tell us, while whatever we’re recommending might be the right thing, it needs to be balanced with the popular thing.

First of all, it isn’t as easy as it looks.  Money doesn’t grow on trees, and our people wouldn’t get paid if we were not actively convincing folks across Pennsylvania that our ideas are the right ones.  And secondly, there is abundant evidence that when leaders turn their states around by boldly pursuing the right thing, it turns out to be the popular thing, too.

The most recent example is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who resoundingly won reelection over the weekend.  As Washington Post bloggers Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake point out, Gov. Jindal is exerting “political dominance” in the Pelican State, having received the highest vote percentage (a whopping 66) for any gubernatorial candidate since Louisiana changed its election laws in 1978.  And as Jim Geraghty recently noted in National Review, Gov. Jindal has an approval rating of 70 percent—in a state in which governors who hail from his party have been about as rare as unicorns and spending has been out of control for decades.  And he’s achieved this level of dominance while aggressively cutting the state budget, privatizing services, and giving parents educational choices:

During his term, Louisiana’s state budget has become $9 billion smaller than when he started, a reduction of 26 percent….

It’s tempting to believe that the pre-Jindal Louisiana state government was so astoundingly wasteful and corrupt that you could cut spending 26 percent without anyone’s noticing, but a big chunk of Louisiana’s savings actually have come from privatization….Jindal’s administration privatized the state’s Office of Risk Management. The Department of Health and Hospitals privatized six in-patient residential-treatment programs around the state, saving $2.5 million. Separately, patients were moved from state-operated institutions that cost $600 or more per patient per day to community-based services and private group homes that average $191 per day, saving another $23.8 million.

But some of Jindal’s cuts are the old-fashioned kind. The state’s Department of Revenue shrank from eight offices statewide to three. There are 9,900 fewer state-government employees than there were four years ago, and the state sold 1,300 vehicles from its fleet of automobiles.

Louisiana’s transportation department shut down a ferry that was used by only 7,200 drivers per year, saving the state roughly three-quarters of a million dollars.

In May 2011, Standard & Poor’s raised Louisiana’s credit rating from AA-minus to AA, citing reduced spending. The upgrade gave the state its first AA rating from S&P since 1984, and its sixth credit-rating upgrade among all three major credit-rating agencies since 2008….

“For too many years,” says Jindal, “we measured educational success by how many dollars we were spending. The reality is, if you’re not measuring effectiveness, you have no idea if you’re spending it well.” This fall, parents will receive report cards on which every school gets a letter grade of A through F. Jindal explains: “The teachers’ unions went to the [board of elementary and secondary education] and they said, ‘We think you should give letter grades based on if a school is trying to improve.’ Let’s say one of the worst schools in the state gets a little better, they should get an A grade. I said, ‘Where in life does that ever happen? My kids play competitive sports. I’ve never seen the score based upon whether they tried harder than last week.’ There are going to be a lot of surprised parents. Though things have gotten better, there will be more low grades than people are expecting. This will empower parents. They need to have choice, information, and an easy way to evaluate ‘How is my child’s school doing?’”

In the Harrisburg bubble, the chatter is always that a bold agenda will cost you in the next election.  You heard it when Gov. Corbett vowed not to raise taxes—even leaders in his own party said it was impossible—and promised to pursue school choice during last year’s campaign.  This week, you’re hearing it about getting government out of the booze business.  Next week, it will be something else.

But if you step out of the bubble and look at leaders like Gov. Jindal, the story is simple:  Milquetoast doesn’t sell, because it doesn’t turn a state around.  Bold, free-market reforms are not only the right thing; they are the only real path to the kind of approval rating that comes with actually making people’s lives better.