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American Press

Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Southwest Louisiana ,
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Quit cutting higher education

Last Modified: Sunday, April 16, 2017 7:08 AM

By Jim Beam/American Press

Louisiana’s higher education leaders appealed for more state financial support last week during a nearly seven-hour hearing by a House Appropriations subcommittee. However, they got little sympathy from chairman Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington.

Schroder echoed the sentiments of other members of the lower chamber’s GOP “Gang of No” whose constant refrain is “cut the budget first.” Unfortunately, there have been many cuts but few workable budget-cutting proposals coming from House Republicans.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in his opening address to the Legislature said, “If there’s a better idea out there — let’s see it. Don’t hide it. Let’s debate it.”

Edwards was talking about a secret budget plan House Republicans are supposed to be putting together. The Advocate reported that Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria and chairman of the House Republican Caucus, said he never said he would release the party’s fiscal plan to the public.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, showed some sympathy for higher education that has received more than $700 million in budget cuts over the last nine years. Leger thinks the state needs to generate some additional revenues somewhere.

“We either do it or we don’t,” Leger said. “It’s really just so simple to me.”

Colleges and universities got 59.1 percent of their funding from the state general fund in fiscal year 2005, but that drops to 36.3 percent in the budget year starting July 1. Meanwhile, tuition and fees have gone from funding 32.5 percent of higher education budgets to 61.2 percent.

Higher education received $1.54 billion in state funding in fiscal 2008, the first year of former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s term. The budget proposed for the next fiscal year provides only $901 million, a $19 million cut from the current year.

That isn’t the worst of it either. Statutory dedications are down by $9.5 million and interagency transfers by $3 million. That means higher education is facing a budget reduction of $31.7 million.

Students and their parents are also taking serious hits. The TOPS scholarship program wasn’t fully funded for the current fiscal year for the first time in its history. Without more revenues, the program will be funded in the next year at only 71.9 percent, a shortage of $81.9 million.

Nearly 50,000 students will benefit from TOPS in the coming year. Average tuition has risen from $2,544 in fiscal 2001-02 to $4,494 in fiscal 2015-16. The big question now is whether the state will ever be able to fully fund the program.

Higher education officials are saying there has been enough budget cutting. Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, continues to speak clearly and bluntly on the issue. He said last year he wasn’t going to beg for money anymore because the system he heads is graduating students who are becoming taxpaying citizens.

Unfortunately, there are 18,000 available annual jobs out there, Sullivan said, but the necessary funding to train and educate students to fill those jobs isn’t there.

“At a time when we are down revenue, would we want to create new taxpayers? I would think we would,” Sullivan said.

“The truth is, you can’t balance the state budget on our backs,” he told members of the subcommittee. “More with less has been done.”

Sullivan made that last statement because it’s a constant refrain from legislators who have said higher education has to “do more with less” so many times in recent years.

F. King Alexander, president of the LSU System, said the cut for next year would be the 17th in the last 10 years. The system also lost 500 faculty members over the last decade. Alexander said the main campus at Baton Rouge ranks 46th out of 50 on money spent per student, but ranks 24th in its graduation rate.

The LSU Health Sciences Center and medical school in New Orleans have lost research dollars and struggles to restore its faculty to pre-Hurricane levels because of state budget cuts. Larry Hollier, chancellor, said the centers lost $18 million in grants and 35 researchers over the past eight years.

Hollier said if the $9.6 million in cuts proposed for all medical centers in New Orleans goes into effect, three things would happen. Hiring would be frozen, scholarship programs for training doctors to work in rural areas would be suspended and a new initiative to train African-American dentists would be halted.

Hollier said LSU has trained 75 percent of the state’s dentists and 70 percent of its physicians.

Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, sat in on last week’s subcommittee meeting. He is one of the exceptions in the ranks of House Republicans. He has been around long enough to know what a higher education can do for this state’s young people.

“Education and economic development go hand in hand,” he said. “We need to provide the universities with the resources they need.”

Why hardline legislators can’t understand the futility of the higher education establishment after nine terrible financial years is mystifying. Education at every level is the only hope Louisiana has to climb out of the cellar it has been stuck in far too long.

*   *   *

CORRECTION — Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, didn’t make the anti-tax comments attributed to him in Thursday’s column. W. Ross Little Jr., the state’s Republican national committeeman, said those were his comments from his Republican Legislative Days Newsletter. Little said the newsletter has no connection to the House Republican Caucus that is chaired by Harris.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871 or jbeam@americanpress.com.


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