House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. (Donna Price / American Press)
Last Modified: Sunday, June 17, 2012 10:15 PM
Among the many issues House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said he fought for during the recent Legislative session was protecting local universities from suffering more state funding cuts.
“I continue to tell people I will not support any more cuts to higher (education),” he said Friday at a Lake Charles League of Women Voters legislative update luncheon.
Kleckley, along with Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, and Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles, discussed some of the bigger bills lawmakers approved this year. They included an education reform package, an updated pension plan for new state workers and a budget that saved some cuts to local universities.
Johns said the state has cut higher education by $427 million over the last five years, and that schools have put in $395 million in tuition increases to make up for those cuts. In that time, McNeese State University has seen its $41 million state general fund income fall to $22.8 million. Sowela Technical Community College has gone from receiving $7.9 million in state general funds to about $5.8 million this year.
Johns said while McNeese was cut by $4 million this year, instead of the initially projected $9 million, those cuts still hurt operations at the school.
leckley said McNeese will benefit from projects approved in the state’s capitol outlay budget, including the Shearman Fine Arts facility, compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and fixing erosion along a drainage lateral that runs underneath Ryan Street.
Kleckley said the state took out $204 million from its “rainy day” fund, which is one-third of the $645 million in the fund. He said that was necessary to prevent a roughly $209 million deficit in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. He said the Legislature has not increased its budget within the last four years, and that overtime for House staffers was down 25 percent from last year.
Danahay said the 31 freshmen House members came in with a “whole different attitude” and were “much more fiscally conservative.”
“I think you’re going to see a movement in that direction in both houses in the future,” he said.
Danahay said one of the best bills to come out of the education reform package will implement programs in child care centers statewide to make sure students are better-prepared when they enter kindergarten.
“When children come into kindergarten, right now they are coming in at different levels,” he said. “That ends up creating problems throughout the whole system. It’s almost impossible to catch them up.”
Kleckley said he has not spoken to former state Rep. Vic Stelly, who stepped down from the Board of Regents on Friday. But, he said, he wants his replacement to be a local resident.
“I think it’s important that we find someone from Lake Charles or Calcasieu Parish and make it a seamless transition,” he said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal will choose Stelly’s replacement.
Kleckley said securing a local board member “could be an issue” with the loss of the 7th Congressional District, which includes Southwest Louisiana. The Legislature-approved U.S. House district changes take effect next year.
Johns said he plans to meet with other state lawmakers in July to review the state’s tax exemptions. Right now, he said, 85 percent of the state’s corporate taxes are exempt and that corporate taxes have dropped from $1.2 billion five years ago to about $200 million in this year’s budget. He said those figures could get worse next year.
“There are projections, and this boggles my mind, that next year we may be in the minus column,” Johns said. “Because of tax credits and tax rebates, we could be paying out more in tax exemptions. This is something we have a responsibility to address.”
Danahay said reviewing the effectiveness of exemptions is critical, especially since some of them have been around for decades.
“We give away hundreds of millions of dollars with the understanding that it’s going to ... create jobs in Louisiana, which will bring us tax revenues,” he said. “Are we doing that? We don’t know.”
The luncheon was held at Reeves Uptown Catering.