Ability to increase college fees advanced by Senate panel

A state Senate committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that would allow colleges and universities to impose a number of new fees on students, including one that could cost LSU digital media students up to $2,500 per semester.

House Bill 671 would allow all of Louisiana’s public institutions to charge up to $48 per student to help schools keep up with leaky roofs and other crumbling infrastructure that’s part of an estimated $1.7 billion deferred maintenance backlog.

HB671’s sponsor, state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, explained to the Senate Committee on Revenue and Fiscal Affairs that the bill doesn’t impose a new maintenance fee.

Institutions have already been charging maintenance fees, Foil said. HB671 would “put everyone at the same level for deferred maintenance,” he said.

Jason Droddy, LSU’s director of external affairs, said the fees will be used to chip away at some of the $450 million backlog LSU has in deferred maintenance and also to make energy efficient improvements to campuses.

Speaking on the future savings from making schools more energy efficient, Droddy said it will allow LSU “to put more state funds into the classrooms where they belong.”

Droddy also said LSU “has a great deal of concern” for students and their ability to pay tuition and fees.

“LSU does very well providing need-based aid to our students,” Droddy said. “Each year, we provide more than $11 million in need-based aid to our students.”

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said she supports the bill because of the flexibility it gives campuses to take care of maintenance needs that go unaddressed every year.

Even if campuses decide to impose the full $48 fee, Woodley noted that students in Louisiana generally pay far less than students at peer schools in the south.

Students at the University of New Orleans, for instance, pay roughly $1,600 less in tuition and fees than their counterparts at peer schools, Woodley said.

On average, students in the nine regional schools that make up the University of Louisiana System pay between $900 and $2,000 less than students at peer schools, Woodley said.

“This bill gives us some room to get relief on our aging infrastructure,” Woodley said. “A little bit of flexibility really helps out at a time like this.”

While the debate over the fees was short, the back-and-forth among senators did include some pointed comments.

State Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, ultimately supported the bill but not before chastising the entire Legislature for five straight years of state budget cuts to the state’s colleges and universities.

“Our universities are stretched because we are not doing our jobs here in Baton Rouge to fund higher education,” Kostelka said. “It’s a shame we are putting more and more of a burden ou the students because we are not doing our job with the funding.”

When legislation is debated at the committee level, the public and members of the audience are allowed to fill out cards expressing their support or their opposition to the bill.

One of the people who filled out a card in support of the bill was Roy O. Martin, a member of the state’s higher education policy panel, the state Board of Regents.

Last week, Martin spoke out against a bill that would allow community colleges to borrow money from the state for construction projects without first getting the project approved by the Regents.

At hearing of Martin’s support for the HB671, state Sen. Robert Adley, the sponsor of the bill that Martin protested, used Wednesday’s debate to exact some revenge.

“I just heard the name of a regent in support of this bill who opposed another bill floating around this building,” said Adley, R-Benton. “They were screaming that these bills have to go before the Regents. Now they want to the change the rules when it suits them. I can’t believe they would take two different positions.”

HB 671 heads next to the full Senate for further debate.