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Committee approves bill to fund construction at Sowela, other community colleges

Last Modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 6:00 PM

By John Guidroz / American Press

BATON ROUGE — A House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that lists more than $250 million in construction projects for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, including two multimillion-dollar projects for Sowela Technical Community College.

The committee voted 19-3 for Senate Bill 204, by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. It heads to the full House for consideration and requires a two-thirds vote because it would sell bonds outside the state’s capital outlay process.

The Sowela projects comprise $9 million for the Morgan Smith Campus in Jennings and $7.2 million for the main campus in Lake Charles. Sowela Chancellor Neil Aspinwall said the new facilities would “meet the demands of a growing student population and the massive industry expansions,” like the anticipated Sasol facility expansion in Westlake.

Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Moss Bluff, was one of three lawmakers who opposed the measure. While he supports the bill’s intent, he said, he is concerned with the long-term financial consequences.

“There’s state general fund money that may have to be used to service the debt,” Geymann said. “What impact is that going to have on what we’re currently doing when we’re already struggling to make ends meet?”

Adley said the state can “grow out” of its budget problems by using the new facilities to train skilled workers.

Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said a “pool of workers” will attract prospective employers to locate in Louisiana. He said the Board of Regents has “not met our need ... in our technical training.”

“The growth in our workforce has to be from those 30 percent of dropouts doing minor jobs so they can improve their family back home. When I look at the big picture, this is how we get there.”

State Treasurer John Kennedy opposed the measure, saying it would bust the state’s 6 percent debt limit. He said the state would end up borrowing money over time to pay for the projects — which could hurt its bond rating.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said funding the construction projects could make it difficult to pay for renovating and maintaining the state’s universities in the future.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, said the state’s higher education system is “broken” and should be fixed.

“It bothers me when you have to file legislation to get around the Board of Regents,” he said. “We’ve got to do something about this problem.”

Geymann said he believes the Board of Regents “has done a poor job in taking care of technical college needs.”

Southwest Louisiana lawmakers voting for the measure were Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville, and Rep. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville.

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