Controversial community college construction bill passes committee

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Jim Purcell, state Commissioner of Higher Education, center, speaks Monday to members of the Senate Finance Committee with Board of Regents Chair Clinton Show caption
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Jim Purcell, state Commissioner of Higher Education, center, speaks Monday to members of the Senate Finance Committee with Board of Regents Chair Clinton "Bubba" Raspberr and Regents staffer Barbara Goodson.

Louisiana’s community and technical colleges won another round Monday in their bid to circumvent the state’s normal protocol for funding construction projects.

The win could mean millions of dollars in renovations and upgrades at Baton Rouge Community College and Delgado Community College in New Orleans.

But higher education officials said the advancement of Senate Bill 204 out of the state Senate Finance Committee comes at the expense of Louisiana’s three other university systems, which will have less money to work with should the bill be signed into law.

The bill next goes to the Senate floor for further consideration.

SB204 would allow the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to avoid the state’s capital outlay process. Capital outlay is the state’s construction funding program; it forces hundreds of projects to compete for limited dollars.

Instead, LCTCS would find private partners to fund portions of construction projects, while also borrowing money directly from the budget.

The bill would provide the means to fund $251.6 million for 28 LCTCS construction projects including $92 million at Delgado and $39.7 million at BRCC.

Projects include building new and better facilities to train welders, nurses, pipefitters and a number of other labor-intensive careers.

Business leaders, health care professionals and elected officials from central Louisiana all spoke in support of the legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, defended SB204 as an economic development tool in a state that doesn’t have enough skilled workers to meet current or future workforce demands.

He said 75 out of every 100 children entering the ninth grade will eventually rely on the state’s community and technical college system to train them for jobs.

But state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell argued that LCTCS violated the state constitution by going around the state Board of Regents, Louisiana’s higher education management panel.

In the past, protocol called for the LSU, Southern University, University of Louisiana and LCTC systems to submit a list of construction needs to regents, which would then prioritize the projects and submit them to be considered in the state’s capital outlay system.

Purcell further argued that since the LCTCS construction projects would get the majority of their funding out of the state’s general fund, the system would essentially be taking money away from LSU, Southern and the University of Louisiana schools. Purcell said the LCTCS projects could cost the state $20 million per year until they are paid off — a process that could last for decades.

Representatives from the state Treasurer’s Office and the Bond Commission also spoke against the legislation, arguing that it would pile too much additional debt onto the state and would likely lead to a downgrade in Louisiana’s credit rating.

Much of the controversy surrounding the bill in higher education circles centers on the precedent it would set if state agencies were to start looking for a sympathetic lawmaker to support their causes rather than going through the normal channels. But as the bill’s sponsor, Adley brushed off those criticisms, at one point holding up a copy of the state constitution and using it as a prop.

“Nothing in the constitution says a state legislator cannot write whatever bill he likes,” Adley said.

After the hearing, LCTCS President Joe May said his system is one of the top two fastest growing in the country and needs to update its facilities as necessary.

He also downplayed the acrimony surrounding the bill. May said the capital outlay system is best for fixing leaky roofs and not for the large-scale construction LCTCS is planning.