Bill to shake up higher education boards approved by House committee

Louisiana’s five higher education management boards are largely the same. They are made up of 81 people. They are overwhelmingly male, and, with the exception of Southern University, the boards are overwhelmingly white.

Take out the student members, who are selected by their peers, and 75 out of 81 board members were handpicked by one person: Gov. Bobby Jindal.

It’s the same for all governors. One perk of the job is the ability to choose like-minded people — some of whom are campaign contributors — to sit on the various boards, panels and commissions that make up a large chunk of state government.

The House Education Committee took a small step Wednesday to shake up part of that system by approving a constitutional amendment that would strip the governor’s office of the blank check it has when appointing the members of Louisiana’s higher education boards.

House Bill 588, sponsored by committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, goes to the full House.

HB588 would clear the way for lawmakers to attach stipulations to some of the appointees at a later date.

It means the governor would have to pick board members that fit certain criteria spelled out by the Legislature.

Carter said the existing law gives the Governor’s Office too much leeway.

“I’m not saying the current process is bad, but boards deal with our kids, and boards deal with an awful lot of money,” Carter said. “I’m just trying to ensure that the people selected have a goal of where we want to go as a state and a vision to get us there.”

Carter also filed a so-called companion bill that would attach specific criteria for selecting board members. Committee members opted to defer House Bill 696 to be brought up at a later date.

That bill would have mandated that at least one member of each board:

Have at least five years experience as a chief executive at a large corporation.

Have five years experience as an executive in the public sector.

Hold a master of business administration degree.

Have earned a degree from the system they would be overseeing.

HB696 also calls for one board member to be recommended jointly by two advocacy groups and one special interest group: the Council for a Better Louisiana, The Public Research Affairs Council and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Legislators further wanted to add requirements that each board would include at least one former educator or lawyer before those arguments ultimately prompted the committee to defer the companion bill to be debated at a later date.

Carter said his fear is legislators would keep piling on different requirements until a point was reached where it would be too hard to find anyone to serve.

On the original bill, Carter explained the governor has a wide-open field of candidates to pick, for appointees that set policy for the state Board of Regents and the LSU, Southern, University of Louisiana and community and technical college systems.

The few restrictions already in place mandate that the governor’s appointments pick two board members from each congressional district in the state, with the remaining members selected statewide for what are called “at-large” seats.

In the case of the Regents and the community and technical college board, the Louisiana Constitution states, “The board should be representative of the state’s population by race and gender to ensure diversity.”

That’s been a sore spot in the past.

That particular wording led to a 2011 lawsuit filed by former U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields, who challenged whether Jindal had violated the Louisiana Constitution through his appointments to the Board of Regents — the state’s top higher education management board.

The suit alleged that in 2010, the governor replaced all the minority board members with like-minded white males in order to carry out his agenda.

The lawsuit was ultimately thrown out when Judge Tim Kelley, of the 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge, ruled the word “should” in the state Constitution does not mean mandatory.

State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, tried to avoid a similar situation during Wednesday’s debate, ultimately getting Carter to agree to an amendment changing the “should” in the bill to “shall.”

Smith said that language was necessary in order to strengthen the state’s diversity requirement.

Karen Champagne and Angela Alef, both of the New Orleans area showed up on behalf of their group, The People LLC. The group’s motto is “We’re Cleaning Up Government.”

Alef testified against HB 588. She argued the criteria being discussed would move the management of the state’s higher education boards toward special interest groups and further away from regular taxpayers.

“The authority in this state belongs to the people,” Alef said. “All taxpayers should be qualified (to be appointed). Representative government is what we should return to.”

If approved by two-thirds of the House and the Senate, HB588 would then be placed on a statewide ballot to be decided by Louisiana’s voters.