Regents discuss challenging tuition authority

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG --  Inside the House Chamber of the State Capitol.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Inside the House Chamber of the State Capitol.

Louisiana’s higher education leaders are considering challenging a widely held belief that any college tuition increase has to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature.

The Louisiana Board of Regents voted Wednesday to ask the state’s four college and university systems if they would support filing a lawsuit that could potentially take tuition control away from lawmakers and hand it over to the schools.

The issue is whether tuition is considered a fee.

A 1995 state constitutional provision, approved by voters, requires a two-thirds vote by the Legislature before a fee charged by a public agency can be increased. One year later, then-Attorney General Richard Ieyoub issued an opinion, which has been interpreted ever since, that includes tuition as a fee.

Louisiana is also the only state in the nation that requires two-thirds legislative approval on tuition and fee increases. Such a high threshold has essentially made changes to tuition policy political nonstarters in the state.

With the backing of the state’s college systems, the regents would file a lawsuit in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge asking the court to rule if tuition, is in fact, a fee.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said it’s an idea she will discuss with her staff.

“We need to take a look at this, but I really would need more information before commenting,” she said.

LSU System President William Jenkins seemed more convinced.

“At the very least we’d like to have a determination letting us know whether the attorney general’s opinion is valid,” Jenkins said. “I’d certainly like to know.”

The issue came up Wednesday as the regents discussed two bills they plan to support in the legislative session that starts April 8. Both pieces of legislation — only one of which has been filed — would give tuition control to the management boards overseeing the LSU, Southern University, University of Louisiana and the Louisiana Community and Technical College systems.

Newly appointed Regent Edward Markle, of New Orleans, started the discussion of a possible court challenge when he noted that the two-thirds voting requirement stems from the attorney general’s opinion and not the actual law.

Markle suggested the regents pursue the issue in court while at the same time petitioning the Legislature to give up its historic control over tuition.

Markle, a lawyer, said he didn’t agree with the attorney general’s opinion.

“A fee is for a driver’s license or a speeding ticket,” Markle said. “Tuition is something you pay for yourself voluntarily. It’s not a fee you pay the government; you pay it to educate yourself.”

Regents Vice Chairman Joseph Wiley, of Baton Rouge, suggested they hold any legal action until after the Legislature decides whether to give up tuition control.

Markle agreed that the regents should take more time to study the issue.

But Regent Albert Sam, a Baton Rouge surgeon, said the issue is too critical to wait. He compared Louisiana’s higher education system to a patient who’s been shot multiple times and is on the verge of death.

“That’s where we are in higher education,” Sam said. “That’s why we have to do something today.”

Regent Bob Levy, of Ruston, said asking the Legislature to give up control of tuition “is going to be a very difficult sell.” He also wondered whether lawmakers would want to take the corresponding amount of any future tuition increase out of state appropriations to colleges and universities.

Wiley added that if schools were to get tuition control, there would need to be built-in controls to prevent “runaway authority.”

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said he supports a re-examination of the Legislature’s desire before the attorney general’s opinion was issued.

“I’ve never considered tuition a state fee,” Purcell said. “It’s important we look at the Legislature’s intent.”