Community college construction funds bill advances

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell speaks out Tuesday against legislation that would allow community colleges to use an alternative method for acquiring construction money. Purcell says other higher education projects would suffer.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell speaks out Tuesday against legislation that would allow community colleges to use an alternative method for acquiring construction money. Purcell says other higher education projects would suffer.

A bill that would fund dozens of construction projects for community and technical colleges statewide sailed through the House Education Committee without opposition Tuesday, even as critics warned that it could mean financial disaster for the state.

Leaders of Louisiana’s four-year colleges argued that Senate Bill 204 is self-serving legislation that would benefit two-year schools at their expense.

So far, none of those arguments have registered with legislators.

The bill passed through the state Senate last week with overwhelming support and is now headed to the House floor.

SB204 would allow Louisiana’s community and technical colleges to borrow more than $250 million for 28 construction projects around the state, including multimillion-dollar efforts to upgrade facilities at Baton Rouge Community College and Delgado Community College in New Orleans.

Schools would find private partners for portions of the expense and then borrow money against the state’s general fund for the remainder.

One of the biggest complaints about the bill is that it allows the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to fund its projects outside the state’s construction funding program called “capital outlay.”

“Capital outlay” forces hundreds of projects to compete for funding out of a limited pool of money.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said the debt incurred by LCTCS would come directly off the top of the state’s general fund, essentially saddling all of higher education with $20 million in annual debt payments over the next 20 years.

W. Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry, chairman of the state Board of Regents, Louisiana’s higher education management panel, added that the bill encourages schools to work against each other rather than collaborating.

“This will bring out competition in the most vulgar and political way,” Rasberry told legislators.

State Treasurer John Kennedy warned legislators that the bill would “bust the state’s debt limit,” hurting Louisiana’s credit rating and making it more expensive to borrow money in the future.

But those arguments were largely pushed aside as a parade of supporters including Walter Monsour, president and chief executive officer of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, and Matt McKay, owner of the All Star Automotive Group, spoke in support of the bill.

LCTCS President Joe May said the bill is about providing the space and equipment to train people to become nurses, automotive technicians and welders — the type of careers that will grow the state’s economy.

May said Louisiana has an opportunity to either put in place a system that’s going to lead to good-paying jobs or to stick with the status quo where people are qualified only to work in the hotels and restaurants that cater to highly skilled workers.

“As a state we have a choice,” May said.

He said the bill would provide greater access to more than a million people living in rural areas who don’t have access to higher education.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said his bill would put the state on track for future economic prosperity.

“I’ve been here a long time,” Adley said. “You’re never going to cut or tax your way out of these messes. You have to grow out of them. This will do that.”