Higher ed retirement bill advances

A pension plan bill that higher education leaders say is vital to their ability to attract new talent to the state cleared its second hurdle Monday.

The state Senate Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 16 without objection. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, would retain current employer contribution rates. SB16, which also passed the state Senate Retirement committee, now goes to full Senate for debate.

Higher education leaders are touting the bill as protection against the “unintended consequences” contained in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pension plan for new employee hires.

The employer contribution would drop to 1.8 percent under Jindal’s plan instead of the current 5.7 percent rate.

Officials from the LSU, Southern University and University of Louisiana systems have argued that Jindal’s 401(k)-type plan would be devastating to recruitment and retention on college campuses.

LSU system President William Jenkins, on Monday, called it a “very significant bill” for higher education and particularly for LSU, which has lost more than 140 faculty members in the past several years.

He said that as more and more faculty have left, LSU’s student-faculty ratio has crept upward in recent years, growing from 17-to-1 to the current 23-to-1 ratio.

Jenkins listed the employer contribution rates for other states, including those surrounding Louisiana, most of which exceed 10 percent, with some being closer to 20 percent.

“This is recruiting season for next fall,” Jenkins said. “It’s very hard to recruit with those numbers. A great university is built on fine students and quality faculty. If we continue down this road, we’ll be a farm club” for other universities.

In further testimony, Southern University system President Ronald Mason and State Commissioner of Education Jim Purcell reiterated that the size of the employer contribution is a key component in the decision-making process for job seekers. A contribution rate significantly lower than surrounding states affects every college and university in the state, the said.

Steven Procopio, chief of staff for Jindal’s Division of Administration, spoke against SB16. He said it amounts to a mandate.

“I understand there needs to be a fix, but I don’t think it should be an across-the-board mandate,” Procopio said. “We need something with more flexibility.”