House gives nod to tech education bill

The state House of Representatives approved a bill Thursday that would expand technical education in all corners of the state.

The 88-11 vote in favor of the community and technical college construction bill marks one of the last steps for a piece of legislation that has been roundly criticized by the state treasurer, the state Board of Regents and the people who run Louisiana’s four-year schools.

The bill has also seen wide support from legislators as it has advanced out of several committees and then garnered the two-thirds’ votes it needed on both the Senate and House floors.

The bill now heads back to the Senate for approval of technical changes made in the House. Then the measure goes to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s desk for signing into law.

Joe May, who runs the state’s community and technical colleges, called Senate Bill 204 “the most important bill of this session,” as it will add 5,000 new work stations to train nurses, airplane mechanics, welders and other skilled labor positions around the state.

“This isn’t just about building new facilities, it’s about providing facilities for the type of workforce this state needs,” May said. “No matter where you live, no matter where you work, you will have an opportunity for a better life. Generations to come are going to benefit from this.”

The bill would allow the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to sidestep the state’s construction funding program, known as capital outlay, where hundreds of projects compete for a limited amount of funding.

Instead, colleges would find private partners to pay for portions of the projects, while borrowing money from the state’s general fund for the remaining costs.

The bill would provide the means to fund $251.6 million for 28 LCTCS construction projects including $92 million at Delgado Community College and close to $40 million at Baton Rouge Community College.

BRCC Chancellor Andrea Miller said SB204 could mean a 5 to 10 percent increase of the school’s roughly 9,000 student enrollment as capacity is expanded.

“Having the right programming is good, but if you don’t have the capacity, you’re really not helping that much,” Miller said. “This will help us support more people and meet the needs of this state.”

Opponents of the bill said it violates the normal process, in which schools submit a list of construction needs to the state’s higher education management panel, the Louisiana Board of Regents, to be prioritized and then forwarded to Jindal’s administration to be considered in the capital outlay system.

Administrators of the state’s four-year schools further argued that since the majority of the money for the projects in SB204 — about $20 million a year for 20 years — would come out of the state’s general fund, community and technical colleges would essentially be taking money away from the LSU, Southern University and University of Louisiana Systems.

State Treasurer John Kennedy argued on numerous occasions that SB204 will hurt the state’s credit rating by putting Louisiana over its debt limit, the amount of money the state is legally allowed to borrow.

Through weeks of debate, SB204’s sponsor, state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, has maintained that the bill is an economic development tool in a state that doesn’t have enough skilled workers to meet current or future workforce demands.