When one of Louisiana’s elder statesmen resigned in protest from the state’s top college board, it was a double rebuke of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
First of all, it was a rebuke of the serious and damaging cuts that Jindal has made in higher education over the past four years.
“I’m tired of the lack of concern with higher education in Louisiana,” said Vic Stelly of Lake Charles, who resigned his seat on the Board of Regents. “Obviously, it’s not a high priority. We seem to be more concerned with other things. This administration doesn’t seem to be concerned with it.”
All too true. About $360 million has been cut from state funding of higher education since 2008, including a $25 million funding reduction colleges were asked to absorb this month.
The higher-education budget is slated to take another $66 million hit in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Things could have been worse, given the bumpy ride in the Legislature over the state budget. But the approval of the budget that in large part was what Jindal wanted originally reflects the overall Jindal policy: Less state aid, more tuition increases.
The Jindal administration already has warned higher education leaders to prepare for another multimillion-dollar budget cut in the next several months, Stelly said.
“They make no bones about it,” Stelly said. “It doesn’t look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Lack of concern? Stelly was too kind. This is a deliberate policy of cutting aid to colleges.
But the reference to the light at the end of the tunnel is an allusion to why many in state government consider Stelly’s resignation another rebuke to Jindal.
In 2002, the people backed a constitutional amendment proposed by Stelly, then a state representative. The Stelly tax reform lowered sales taxes on food and other household necessities, in exchange for an increase in income taxes, mainly by closing loopholes for the best-off households and adjusting brackets for income tax payers.
This was a landmark reform. Jindal was, in fact, for a while a part of the administration of Gov. Mike Foster, who backed the reform.
But instead of keeping to the deal — a stable tax base from income taxes to offset the lower taxes on household necessities — a savage campaign of misrepresentation against the Stelly reforms was begun and only increased over several years.
It worked, particularly among Republicans from affluent districts where residents paid larger income tax bills. It became a party orthodoxy to oppose the Stelly reforms. Forgotten under the barrage of criticism was that affluent taxpayers also benefited, and greatly, from the sales tax cuts.
First Gov. Kathleen Blanco in 2007 and then Jindal in 2008 approved a series of bills that rolled back the income tax provisions of the Stelly reforms. This has deprived the state of hundreds of millions a year in revenue to the general fund.
And that’s the general fund hole that Jindal is now compelled to fill by cutting college aid, among other expedients. It’s why the budgets since have been a cobbled-together collage of cuts, tuition increases and use of one-time money for recurring expenses. The budget is balanced only in the narrowest technical sense, while investments in Louisiana’s future are deferred or reduced.
The tragic consequences of Jindal’s embrace of the Stelly income tax repeals are going to be felt for years.
The cumulative reduction in general fund aid to colleges under Jindal is now above $1 billion over four years. And as Stelly said, there is more bad news ahead.
It’s an axiom in government that when you give away part of your tax base, it’s very difficult to get it back.
That’s what has happened. The reformer Vic Stelly has been twice betrayed by Jindal’s policy, and his resignation is thus a double rebuke to our “reform” governor.