Inside Report: Commissioner pay in question

There’s a bill winding its way through the Legislature right now that could go a long way in determining how strong a candidate Louisiana is able to attract to oversee the state’s higher education institutions.

It comes down to money.

More specifically, how far the state Board of Regents, Louisiana’s higher education policy board, is willing to open its wallet to attract a new state commissioner of higher education.

Some people in state government say Louisiana needs a transformational leader that can command a room and get people to fall in line — in other words, someone who will cost a lot of money.

Others look at a network of schools claiming they’ve been nearly crippled by six straight years of state budget cuts totaling roughly $700 million.

The people in that group say Regents has no business going after a high-priced candidate.

The thought is: How can you dangle fat salaries in front of prospective candidates, then turn around and complain about budget cuts?

The state has been without a state commissioner of higher education since late March when Jim Purcell’s contract ended and he quietly packed up his office and headed back to his home in Alabama.

During his three-year tenure as the state’s top higher education executive, Purcell made roughly $275,000 a year.

It’s a modest sum when compared with the $426,000 annual pay package Southern President Ronald Mason negotiated or the $650,000 pay package LSU President F. King Alexander takes home every year.

So, how is it that the most recent state commissioner of higher education made significantly less money than the leaders at Southern and LSU?

It all started with Purcell’s predecessor, Sally Clausen, who secretly retired for a day before getting rehired. The turnaround netted her a nearly $90,000 lump payment in accrued vacation and sick leave time. The ensuing controversy led to Clausen’s retirement.

That wasn’t enough for lawmakers.

They enacted new rules requiring the Senate to confirm any candidate picked to be the commissioner. They also required the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to sign off on the commissioner’s salary before it becomes official.

State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, thinks lawmakers have given themselves too much oversight. He called it an “obstruction to recruitment.”

Appel’s Senate Bill 108 would remove the Legislature from the hiring process.

“No system presidents have to go through this. We don’t want to discourage top candidates from applying for the job,” he said. “A lot of people are very happy in their job; you have to offer them a competitive salary when you are recruiting them.”

Barry Erwin, president of the education watchdog group Council for a Better Louisiana, called it unnecessary micromanagement.

“It’s an overreach, in our view, that was really based on a single moment in time,” Erwin said.

State Rep. Simone Champagne, R-Jeanerette, has a different take.

“My question is, with all the cuts, why are we going to pay a higher salary?” Champagne asked, suggesting the Regents need to come up with a salary scale and stick to it.

When the issue came up during Monday’s Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting, state Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, argued legislative oversight is necessary.

Kostelka won a small victory when lawmakers agreed to amend the bill so that a new commissioner hire would still require Senate confirmation but not salary approval from the budget committee.

“You don’t trust the Senate, maybe we don’t trust y’all,” he told the higher education executives. “If somebody is scared to come before the Senate for confirmation, I would present to you that you don’t have the right person for the job,” he said.

Regents Chairman W. Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry summed up why a higher salary is necessary.

“When we set the salary at $275,000, we only had one candidate,” he said.

Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau.