Governor’s WISE plan advances at State Capitol

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan for positioning higher education to meet the workforce’s job demands zipped through a state Senate committee Monday.

The Workforce Innovation for a Stronger Economy fund envisions public colleges and universities competing for a $40 million pool. By producing graduates for high-demand fields and bringing in private funding, colleges would get a share of the pool.

The focus likely will be on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Senate Finance Committee advanced House Bill 1033 to the full Senate after making a few tweaks. The plan still hinges on legislators finding the dollars for the WISE fund.

Debate on the bill brought the state’s higher education leaders to a basement committee room at the State Capitol. Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr., who was absent, sent a statement of support.

HB1033 appears to be Jindal’s response to criticism that he whittled state funding for higher education during tough economic times. Increasingly, colleges have been relying on tuition hikes instead of money from the state’s general fund to pay the bills.

“We need additional resources,” LSU System President F. King Alexander told committee members as he praised the WISE plan. Alexander said the state’s job needs have to be addressed.

The WISE plan represents a collaboration with the state Department of Economic Development and the Louisiana Workforce Commission. The goal is to match schools’ education focuses with the needs of the state’s economy.

Higher education leaders spent weeks negotiating with the Jindal administration on the plan.

“We have a lot of really good jobs coming into Louisiana. What we don’t have is the trajectory to fill those jobs,” University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said.

The legislation cleared its first hurdle early in session. With two weeks left on the session calendar, it is nearing the governor’s desk.

A flurry of amendments prompted the finance committee to adjourn for several minutes while legislators and staff got the proposed changes straight. Woodley said afterward that none of the adopted changes posed a problem.

Exactly what each university’s financial share would be is unclear. The WISE plan gives schools an incentive to prepare students for employment in what the Louisiana Workforce Commission calls four- and five-star jobs, such as engineering and computer science.

State Sen. Bret Allain, R-Jeanerette, fretted Monday that agricultural jobs won’t rank highly in the star ratings. He said the average age of a farmer in Louisiana is 58. “There’s going to be a huge gap,” he said.

Like Allain, state Sen. Norby Chabert raised concerns about how jobs important to his legislative district will rank. Chabert, R-Houma, counts shipyard workers among his constituents.

Chabert said he wants to talk to leaders privately about the job prioritization list. He said he is uncertain that the state Department of Economic Development knows which jobs are important.

“I don’t know that LED even understands that boats float, frankly,” Chabert said.

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