Last Modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 5:57 PM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Attempts to raise tuition at Louisiana's public colleges appear dead for the session, despite concerns about repeated rounds of budget cuts to schools.
Rep. Walt Leger, the number two ranking member of the House, said Wednesday that he's shelving his proposal to let the campuses raise tuition according to a plan devised by the Board of Regents. He said he doesn't have the two-thirds support of lawmakers required to pass the bill.
"The votes are not there, and I don't believe they will be there this session," said Leger, D-New Orleans, "As far as I'm concerned, it's done."
A day earlier, a separate proposal by Shreveport Republican Rep. Thomas Carmody to remove the legislative approval requirement for college tuition hikes failed in the House, falling 19 votes short of passage.
Leger said he still supports getting the Legislature out of micromanaging tuition rates, but he doesn't believe the effort will gain traction during the current four-year term that Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers are in office.
"I do think it's a conversation that needs to continue," he said.
Lawmakers have worried about the impact on the state's free college tuition program called TOPS, which covers the full cost of tuition for students who meet certain academic benchmarks and test scores in high school. Any increase in tuition raises the state's price tag for TOPS.
Other concerns have been raised about continuing to shift costs to students who have faced several years of tuition and fee hikes.
"Isn't this in a way a tax on their dreams?" Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, said during debate on Carmody's bill.
Several legislators also have said they see no net benefit in raising tuition rates if Jindal and lawmakers are going to then shrink state financing for colleges.
Jindal has repeatedly proposed, and lawmakers have approved, offsetting state dollars for colleges with increased tuition â€” and then declared that the schools weren't taking budget cuts.
The Board of Regents, which governs higher education in the state, has urged lawmakers to relinquish their control over tuition, saying that no other state requires a two-thirds vote of lawmakers to raise charges on students and that Louisiana's tuition rates remain among the lowest in the South.
Higher education leaders say schools are struggling to recruit and keep faculty, maintain courses and programs for students and remain competitive with schools in other states because of five years of budget cuts.
Jindal and lawmakers have stripped an estimated $650 million in state financing from higher education since 2008, according to the Board of Regents. Only about half of that gap has been filled by tuition increases.
"How are they supposed to continue to operate in a state that will not put up the money?" Carmody said during debate on his bill.
Outside of tuition increases, other proposals to raise new dollars for colleges remain alive in the Legislature, including a House-backed bill that would allow campuses to increase fees for students, with the dollars dedicated to building maintenance and upkeep.
Also nearing final passage is a measure that would allow the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to borrow more than $250 million for construction projects outside of the traditional construction budget process.
A bid to ban smoking within 25 feet of the entrances to state-owned office buildings, as a way to lessen exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, continued to advance Wednesday in the Louisiana Legislature.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee backed the proposal (House Bill 111) without objection, sending it to the full Senate for debate. The House already has approved the bill, a similar version of which has run into opposition from senators in past sessions.
Louisiana prohibits smoking in restaurants, public places, public buildings and many places of employment. Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, wants to extend the ban to within 25 feet of state office buildings' entrances and to their wheelchair ramps.
Violators would face a $25 fine the first time, a $50 fine for a second offense and a $100 fine for subsequent offenses.
A proposal to ban employers and schools from demanding access to personal online accounts has been scrapped.
The House had approved the measure. But Rep. Ted James ran into concerns in the Senate that he said Wednesday can't be worked out before the session ends June 6.
James' bill would prohibit employers and public schools, including colleges and universities, from requesting information such as usernames, passwords or other authentication information that allows them to access personal online accounts.
The bill would not have prohibited employers or schools from requesting access information to company-owned devices.
James says senators raised questions about the effect on school-owned equipment used by students, like school-issued email addresses.
He says he'll revisit the idea next year.
A proposal by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration to charge middle- and upper-income parents a fee for the occupational, speech and other therapy services their children receive through the Early Steps program received approval from the Senate health committee.
Early Steps offers therapy services for children up to 3 years old who are having troubles with speech, vision and motor control development. About 9,000 children receive services each year.
The House-approved bill (House Bill 375) by Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, would allow the state Department of Health and Hospitals to create a cost-share for families on a sliding scale based on their income.
It would allow the department to charge any family with annual income above 300 percent of the federal poverty level —$67,056 for a family of four — a portion of the cost of services through Early Steps. The change is estimated to generate $1.2 million for DHH next year and $1.6 million annually thereafter.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee backed the bill without objection, sending it to the full Senate for consideration.
• Measures aimed at regulating Louisiana's salt dome operations in response to a 15-acre sinkhole in Assumption Parish will be debated by the full Senate, after getting approval from the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The bills (House Bills 493 and 494) by Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, would require stricter guidelines for monitoring salt dome areas and would require legal notification to prospective property owners of nearby underground caverns.