From equal pay for women to drug testing scholarship winners, Louisiana’s legislators rely on different state agencies to study a range of issues before making policy decisions.
But according to past and current lawmakers, legislators regularly abuse the practice — requesting costly and time-consuming study resolutions that amount to very little in the end.
Former legislator Victor Stelly said 95 percent of the study resolutions passed by the Legislature “are a waste of time.”
“All those studies are mostly collecting dust somewhere in some closet,” Stelly said.
In the case of the Louisiana Board of Regents, lawmakers have passed more than 40 study resolutions since 2010, essentially ordering the state’s higher education policy board to eat nearly $300,000 in unexpected costs.
According to a Regents fact sheet, legislators have not included a mechanism to pay for a Regents study since 2009. Then, they appropriated just under $400,000 for a commission to review ways to improve and restructure public colleges in the state.
Since then, however, legislators have asked the Regents to study a number of different issues ranging from steering more students toward engineering degrees to tuition disparities among four-year colleges to examining midwifery and yoga teacher training.
One lawmaker said the number of studies heaped on the Regents is a sign that Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn’t have a plan for the direction of higher education in Louisiana — a charge the governor brushed aside this week in a statement issued by his press office.
State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said the Regents have no choice but to follow the wishes of legislators even when the studies cost valuable man hours to complete internally or when outside contractors with five-figure price tags have to be brought in to lend their expertise.
But Purcell noted that conducting studies, whether for their own purposes or because of a mandate from the Legislature, is a big part of what the Regents do as the state’s higher education coordinating body.
In recent years, the Regents have directed new hires toward the part of their office which handles study resolutions, Purcell added.
“It is our constitutional duty to advise the Legislature, and we take that seriously,” he said. “Some of the studies we do are based on legislation that did not pass and need more thought. I think that’s an appropriate use of our time.”
But Stelly, the former 16-year legislator who earlier this month resigned his post on the Board of Regents, said abuse among lawmakers is rampant.
“What happens is that some legislator gets an idea from a constituent. They introduce a bill, it runs into problems, it becomes obvious it’s not going to pass so they turn it into a study to save face. ... I’ve done it before” Stelly said.
Besides the number of the studies, there is a question of how seriously they are taken at the State Capitol.
The Legislature created the 18-member Governance Commission in 2011 to study big-picture higher education issues. The panel finished its work in January.
Among its recommendations were separating the state’s free college scholarship program called TOPS from tuition so the merit-based awards could be capped at set values; putting control of tuition increases in the hands of college boards rather than the Legislature; and changing the state Constitution to strengthen the Board of Regents.
Barry Erwin, the president of the Council for a Better Louisiana and a member of the Governance Commission, said the panel’s 21 recommendations have mostly been swept aside.
“We met for six months. We spent a lot of time and effort on those recommendations and none of them went anywhere,” Erwin said.
The Governance Commission cost more than $63,000, according to a Regents compilation.
The cost of the Legislature’s study resolutions, concerning higher education or otherwise, is a concern among some lawmakers.
State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, a member of the House Education Committee, called it “entirely appropriate” for legislators to ask the Regents to study an issue to help them decide whether to pursue legislation or not.
“But members need to recognize that there is a cost,” Henry said. “Just like there is a cost to doing bad legislation.”
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, scanned the list of legislatively mandated studies this week and said the number and the cost “stands out.”
“It’s clear these are individual efforts legislators are making to create efficiencies and improve our higher education system. It’s also clear there hasn’t been any leadership or direction from a governor who purports to support higher education,” Peterson said.
“There has been no collective effort by the administration, so members are making their own attempts to protect the system. What we need is leadership.”
Jindal responded to Carter in a written statement.
“The reality is that we have passed monumental reforms to improve graduation and retention rates. ... These reforms give higher education institutions more flexibility in return for better student outcomes. The Legislature has the right to ask for studies, but we agree that folks should not be requesting superfluous studies that cost time and money and will only sit on a shelf.”