Jindal meets with regents higher ed board

Members of Louisiana’s top higher education board sat down with Gov. Bobby Jindal, signaling a possible breakthrough in what has been a frosty long-distance relationship between the two parties going back several years, the board’s chairman said Thursday.

While the two sides apparently remain apart on the issues, regents Chairman Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry called Wednesday’s hour-long meeting “convivial” and a welcome gesture from the governor after being rebuffed by Jindal staffers numerous times over several months.

Jindal and the Louisiana Board of Regents have been at odds publicly on a number of issues ranging from the governor’s plan to fund higher education to the circumstances under which schools should be allowed to raise tuition, he said. The regents want more stable sources of state funding for colleges and universities and increased authority for higher education management boards to set tuition, Rasberry said.

Jindal did not respond to an interview request Thursday, but in a prepared statement he was quoted as saying: “We had a great meeting. We discussed our commitment to higher education and the path forward to make sure our students continue to get a great education.”

One of the widest divisions to have surfaced between the two sides is the governor’s 2013-14 higher education budget, Rasberry said.

Regents board members say they are specifically concerned about the use of one-time, or non-recurring, money that likely won’t be available next year; and money that is contingent on the sale of property and lawsuit settlements that may not materialize this year. Should any of those contingency dollars fail to show up, the governor’s budget calls for higher education funding to be reduced by the corresponding amount.

In total, the regents believe that as much as $489 million, or nearly two-thirds of the $774 million set aside by the state to fund public colleges and universities, is at risk.

Rasberry said the governor assured him he would not have included one-time or contingency money in the higher education budget if he didn’t think the funds wouldn’t materialize.

Rasberry said Regents members and the governor also discussed spreading some of the “risky” money around to other parts of the state budget. Those funds are currently allocated exclusively to higher education in Jindal’s budget proposal.

Jindal’s top aides have argued that those funds turn up year after year and aren’t as risky as college and university leaders have portrayed.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols has said it wouldn’t make sense to identify money that’s going to be collected and not include it in the state budget.

Jindal’s statement said he explained to the Regents how hard his staff worked “to find available dollars so that we didn’t have to make a 19 percent cut,” to colleges and universities.

Another fight the regents are likely to take up next month during the legislative session is the battle over who controls tuition. The most widely accepted interpretation of Louisiana law holds that tuition increases are a fee, and therefore, subject to two-thirds approval from the Legislature.

The regents, however, are pushing a number of legal changes in the upcoming legislative session.

The measures would allow schools to charge more for high-cost, high-demand programs and to charge students on a per-credit basis. Schools are currently limited to charging students tuition for only 12 credits per semester.

Most of those debates are expected to be hard fought in a Legislature stingy about giving up control over tuition, higher education leaders have said. But things could ease up with support from the governor, who has indicated recently that he would support giving Louisiana’s public colleges and universities more control over tuition, provided they agree to higher performance standards and greater oversight from the state Legislature.

In his statement released Thursday, Jindal says that the 2010 LA GRAD Act gives higher education institutions the flexibility to operate with more autonomy in return for improved students outcomes. The law gives institutions authority to raise tuition after meeting predetermined academic benchmarks.

Higher education leaders have argued that the law was originally intended to reward institutions for performing well. But the regents senior staff, such as Deputy Commissioner Larry Tremblay, has said repeatedly that the GRAD Act has since become a mechanism by which schools keep their funding levels somewhat stable at a time when state funding to colleges and universities is drying up.