Legislators pan budget plan for La. colleges

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU System President William Jenkins, second from right, answers questions before the House Appropriations Committee Thursday as legislators discussed Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposed budget. From left to right are University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley, Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May and Southern University President Ronald Mason.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU System President William Jenkins, second from right, answers questions before the House Appropriations Committee Thursday as legislators discussed Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposed budget. From left to right are University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley, Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May and Southern University President Ronald Mason.

Members of the state Legislature’s House Appropriations Committee spent much of Thursday criticizing the way Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to fund Louisiana colleges and universities in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Legislators also heard a call from the state’s top higher education administrators imploring the Legislature to loosen its grip on tuition-setting authority.

Jindal’s budget relies heavily on nonrecurring, or “one-time,” money that likely won’t be available in the future and contingency money from property sales and lawsuit settlements that may or may not materialize.

Should any of those contingency dollars fail to show up, the governor’s budget calls for higher education funding to be cut by the same amount.

Mark Antoon, a legislative budget analyst, called Jindal’s budget proposal “a pretty big departure from the past.”

State Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, directed his questions to Barry Dussé, state director of planning and budget for the Jindal administration. Morris questioned how the Jindal administration could be sure contingency funds would be available for the 2013-14 fiscal year when they haven’t materialized in past years.

“Isn’t it a fact that some of the things we budgeted for last year haven’t been collected?” Morris asked. “Why would we think it’s going to be different this year?”

Dussé responded by telling Morris that the Jindal administration is confident the money will be available as needed.

Later, state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, asked why the governor structured his budget in such a way that all the contingency and one-time funding is directed toward higher education.

“Why is it that the administration thinks it’s best to load up higher education with all this contingency money rather than spreading it out,” Schroder said, “... why is higher education being picked on?”

Dussé responded in much the same way he responded to Morris, telling Schroder, “We’re not anticipating any problems.”

“You’re not even coming close to answering my question,” Schroder responded.

The issue of how Louisiana’s public colleges and universities are funded has taken on added significance over the past five years.

Post-secondary institutions statewide have seen their share of state general fund dollars cut by nearly $650 million since 2008 as the Legislature and the governor worked to balance state budgets. Schools have made up of some of the difference by raising tuition roughly $331 million over the same time frame.

Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry, chair of the Board of Regents, the state’s top higher education panel, also said he was skeptical all of the money in the governor’s budget would materialize.

Rasberry said faculty morale is low and some have worked even when getting paid was uncertain. “Higher ed is operating on an awful lot of loyalty right now,” he said.

In his presentation to committee members Thursday, Antoon, the budget analyst, cited a report that says Louisiana’s combined funding for higher education — state dollars plus tuition — equals 83 percent of the average amount states spend on colleges and universities nationwide.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said that below average funding trend puts Louisiana at “fourth or fifth” from the bottom in support for higher education.

That low support is part of the reason why Purcell and the four presidents of Louisiana’s public post-secondary systems have come out in favor of House Bill 194.

The legislation would take tuition setting authority from the Legislature and give it to the management boards overseeing the LSU, Southern University, University of Louisiana and the Louisiana Community and Technical College systems. HB194 would also allow schools to charge tuition on a per-credit hour basis.

Currently, raising tuition requires two-thirds approval from the Legislature — the toughest threshold in the nation. At the same time, institutions are allowed only to charge students for the first 12 credits taken per semester.

Purcell further called on the Legislature to give schools authority to charge more for high-cost programs, such as nursing, engineering and pharmacy. Those changes, he said, are “critical” to the future of higher education in Louisiana. They would allow schools to add faculty, which would result in more courses being offered, which in turn would save students money as the amount of time it takes to graduate would be shortened, Purcell said.

Purcell’s call for tuition authority came at about the same time the Baton Rouge Area Chamber released a statement that supported giving the state’s management boards control over tuition. “It takes talent to breed talent, and it is critical for our higher education institutions to have the funding and latitude necessary to attract and retain talent among their ranks,” BRAC Chief Executive Officer Adam Knapp said in his statement.