BATON ROUGE, La.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's back in Louisiana and ready to appear in charge of working through Louisiana's budget morass. Clearly, someone noticed that the rhetoric growing against him could become toxic if he seemed absent for too long.
Jindal began last week what he says were the first of a continuing series of meetings with "stakeholders" in the budget discussions: education leaders, health care chiefs, lobbyists, legislative leaders and those who have been talking louder about their fears of the scope of impending budget cuts.
"We're all working together," Jindal said repeatedly last week as the meetings began.
The governor said he's taking in suggestions and listening, and the attendees of the meetings have said that they're grateful for the opportunity to give him some of their ideas and that they've found the discussions productive.
Jindal's not committed to any specific proposals after the gatherings, saying it's too early since his budget recommendations aren't due to lawmakers until March. One exception: he's definitive on his long-standing opposition to taxes, but otherwise he's not promising anything.
"We know this is an early part of the process. We're going to present to the Legislature a balanced budget, a budget that doesn't raise taxes, that protects our priorities like education and health care," Jindal says in generalities about his framework.
Sounds simpler than the reality for the Jindal administration to cobble together with a $1.6 billion state general fund shortfall in the new 2011-12 fiscal year that begins July 1. For comparison, the state is spending about $7.6 billion in general fund money this year in a budget of more than $25 billion, with the rest including self-generated fees, federal money and other sources of restricted dollars that can't necessarily be cut to address the shortfall.
Whether Jindal will consider the ideas offered in the round-table discussions at the Governor's Mansion -- and back them as part of his agenda -- remains to be seen, and that's not entirely the point of the meetings anyway.
The idea is for Jindal to appear interested in more than the tour for his new book, "Leadership and Crisis," and his fundraising efforts as the state grapples with what is considered one of its most serious budget dilemmas in decades.
The idea is for Jindal to be seen hard at work in the state he's often been criticized for leaving so regularly on the campaign trail.
Bring in the cameras, show Jindal sitting down to get into the details of budget haggling and combat that line of complaining that the governor's not engaged and not interested in the affairs of state.
Plus, everyone says they're glad to be talking, and they've cut down on what had become their increasingly open and public chatter about not being heard or their ideas not being considered.
While the focus may be on the perception, it appears the conversations could be generating some fruitful ideas, suggestions being bandied about that might be incorporated to help avoid some of the budget cuts currently on the table.
The governor has outlined several proposals floated to him that he'll consider: tuition and fee increases from higher education officials, greater management flexibility for public schools and the use of local health care dollars to generate more federal matching cash.
Jindal notes that there's no unanimous agreements around the table as the groups get together, but he returns to the point that they're all talking and that he's involved in those discussions.
And if some useful suggestions come up while the governor's showing that he's all involved in the budget process, that'll be a nice tidy byproduct.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.