Higher ed chief returns to Senate

The Louisiana Senate will have to decide whether it wants to give up some of its power in hiring the state’s commissioner of higher education.

The House pushed forward with Senate Bill 108, which would strip Senate confirmation of the hire and salary approval from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

The proposed shift back toward more authority for the state Board of Regents passed the House in a 89-9 vote Wednesday after a brief floor debate, sending it back to the Senate. An earlier version of SB 108 passed the Senate 34-2 last month, but it left Senate confirmation in tact.

Supporters of the legislation say that the change will help the state attract better candidates. Under the current system, state Rep. John Bel Edwards said, “We will exclude people that we would want to hire.”

The state Board of Regents is in the process of finding a successor to former higher education commissioner Jim Purcell, who quietly left the job in March.

“Our state needs the absolute best person in this office,” said Edwards, D-Amite. “We’re making strides. We need to make sure that we free the hands of the Board of Regents.”

SB108 sponsor, state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said during a committee hearing that the bill will help Louisiana lure more qualified candidates to the post.

“The commissioner of higher education is one of the most import posits in the structure of education in Louisiana,” Appel said, noting that it’s the only higher ed job that requires two levels of legislative approval. “It’s extraordinarily important that we have the best person in the country in that position.”

Lawmakers implemented the approval steps in 2010, after former commissioner Sally Clausen resigned amid controversy after she secretly retired for a day then rehired, netting her a nearly $90,000 lump payment in vacation and sick leave time.

But officials have signaled they are ready to hand back some trust.

“This is prohibiting us from getting the best candidate now,” said state Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond. “It’s a good bill.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .