Our Views: Quick checks for colleges

Legislators are right to worry about the looming problems of the state budget, even if lawmakers themselves are highly complicit in the bad fiscal policies that have plagued the state in the past five years. But legislators should not put off funding some urgent programs, including the WISE Fund proposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Why is the grandly named Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund an exception? Because of the impact of as much as $60 billion in new industrial construction that will hit the Bayou State over the next few years.

The WISE Fund is a way for colleges, including community and technical colleges, to jump-start specific training programs or expansions of enrollment in areas related to the industrial boom — from carpentry to welding to engineering and sciences.

The fund is not a perfect solution. For one thing, most of it isn’t really new money for colleges, but “repurposing” of money that colleges got from another source last year. The Louisiana Budget Project rightly called it another bit of funny money by Gov. Bobby Jindal, but colleges have been hit with years of budget cuts, so they’re desperate for any revenue they can get.

Nor are we entirely comfortable with the idea that the governor’s political appointees are going to be looking over the shoulders of college presidents and chancellors; since 1975, under the newly adopted constitution, a degree of distance between the raw politics of the day and management of state institutions was the goal.

Ronald Mason, the Southern University System president, says the systems will have ultimate control of the expenditures from the WISE Fund. Still, we don’t want to see our colleges getting state dollars with new political strings attached.

What is positive, though, is that the state Workforce Commission and other agencies will be able to work with the private sector to provide data on labor and training needs to help guide decisions.

In a time of tight budgets, the Legislature might be tempted to raid the $40 million WISE Fund to offset cuts elsewhere. We think that would be a bad idea.

“Experts say they have never seen an industrial expansion like the one currently underway in our state, but they also say we are going to need to train and attract even more people to fill the demand for all the jobs coming to Louisiana,” the governor says.

The WISE Fund is not a huge investment, but it is one that can be targeted on workforce needs right away. The dimension of the workforce challenge is so great that we think Jindal’s proposal should be adopted this year, in time to make a difference.