College construction funding spiked; maintenance deferred

That’s the way it goes when it comes to the state’s construction funding program, known as capital outlay — too many projects, not enough money.

Earlier this year, the Legislature inserted $76 million into the state’s construction budget to help colleges and universities address persistent maintenance issues on Louisiana campuses, from moldy buildings to faulty sewer systems.

It was an attempt to put a dent in the estimated $1.8 billion deferred maintenance backlog that has become a safety risk as fire detection systems grow older, sidewalks crumble and schools try to keep up with federal requirements to become fully handicap-accessible.

Every year legislators make a construction wishlist with more projects than state government can afford. The projects either need cash through borrowing or extended lines of credit.

This year, they put in for $351 million worth of construction that Gov. Bobby Jindal had to fit into $105 million available for new projects.

During that process, the governor cut $19 million from each of the state’s four college and university systems, or $76 million total.

The governor’s chief budget adviser, Kristy Nichols, called it routine work that state government has to do.

“We are always balancing priorities,” Nichols said. “We do what we should do to balance our priorities with health care, higher ed, roads and bridges. That’s the work that has to be done by the state.”

Nichols added that higher education’s construction needs haven’t been completely abandoned.

Since 2008, the Jindal administration has pumped more than $700 million into higher education building repairs, she said.

And earlier this year, the governor and the Legislature agreed to give the LSU, Southern, University of Louisiana and community and technical college systems $10 million each to use for deferred maintenance or routine operations costs.

“That’s nothing but an indication of higher ed’s importance to the Legislature and the governor,” Nichols said.

Despite the growing maintenance issues on campuses throughout the state, the Board of Regents deputy commissioner for finance, Barbara Goodson, said there is little reason to be upset about losing the $76 million from the construction budget, and plenty of reason to be thankful for the $10 million in cash each of the systems received this summer.

“We didn’t expect any of that $76 million to materialize because of the sheer difficulty of the process,” Goodson said.

Southern System President Ronald Mason is presiding over a network of campuses in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport that collectively has a $277 million maintenance backlog.

He had a similar take on getting less cash up front versus the chance at more money down the road to address maintenance.

“We need all the money we can get,” Mason said. “If we had to choose, I think we’d all take the $10 million. That’s money we can use at our discretion.”

One thing that could partially mitigate the loss of the construction money is the Legislature’s passage of Act 426 this year.

Act 426 allows 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.

The new charges could raise as much as $18 million a year for Louisiana’s colleges and universities.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, argued an increasing number of college and university buildings around the state are falling into disrepair and are in need of attention.

The chancellor of Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Monty Sullivan, is looking at a $57 million maintenance backlog on his campus.

He said the new fees could generate as much as $1.3 million a year for his school.

He also said he understands the Legislature and the governor were in a tough position when it came to prioritizing the state’s construction dollars.

“When budgets are tight, one of the areas that gets left out is deferred maintenance,” he said. “It’s because you have so much money tied up just running your operation.”