Inside Report: La. college funding includes one-time money

One of the age-old cliches in government is that politics will always take time to catch up to reality. It means the lofty goals delivered in those fiery tones politicians often use when arguing their point of view can’t always be reconciled with how things really are.

Let’s assume that Gov. Bobby Jindal was sincere in May 2008, four months after becoming governor, when he criticized the use of nonrecurring, or one-time money, to pay for year-after-year expenses.

Consider the following Jindal quote from a 2008 press conference: “As you know, as we began the budget process this year we had to first grapple with the legacy of $800 million in recurring expenditures in the current budget, which were paid for using one-time money. That is like using your credit card to pay your mortgage.”

That’s a direct quote taken from the governor’s website. He continued with this quote: “Creating recurring expenditures by spending one-time money is not just fiscal irresponsibility ... it is a failure to stand up for the taxpayers we were elected to serve.”

Contrast that with the talk coming out of the Governor’s Office this year.

Jindal’s plan to fund Louisiana’s colleges and universities for the 2013-14 fiscal year relies on $489 million in one-time funds and contingency, or speculative, money from property sales and lawsuit settlements.

Jindal rarely agrees to interviews with reporters covering state government, but his staffers have strongly defended his approach to funding higher education, saying the governor went to great lengths to “protect” Louisiana institutions from further budget cuts.

His chief budget aide, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, has said the governor is “committed” to higher education. She said that without one-time and contingency funding, the state’s colleges and universities would be facing a 19 percent budget cut.

Jindal’s press secretary Sean Lansing recently forwarded the following quote from the governor defending his budget proposal: “We make no apologies for standing up for higher education institutions and our students. In fact, that’s why our budget protects higher education and makes no cuts to campuses. We think it’s irresponsible to make reductions to higher education’s budget when there are dollars available.”

The theme of responsibility, coupled with the idea of “protecting” and “standing up” for higher education through the use of one-time money, is a pretty long way from his “using a credit card to pay for a mortgage” analogy.

Jindal staffers bristle when reporters use budget numbers from the Louisiana Board of Regents, the state’s authority on higher education. The Regents calculate state budget cuts to higher education at just under $650 million since 2008.

But in trying to shape public perception of the budget cuts to Louisiana schools, Jindal’s aides cite a number about $300 million less than the Regents number and call it “total funding to higher education.” The key word is “total.”

What they don’t say is their number includes the $331 million in tuition increases schools have charged students to partially offset the state budget cuts.

Jindal’s staffers also like to say the governor’s budget proposal doesn’t cut higher education. But when you look at the document, there is a $75 million cut the administration expects schools to make up with more tuition increases.

Words matter, and while the governor may not appreciate his words from the past being used against him years later in a different economic climate, his current arguments would hold more weight if his staffers and aides weren’t trying try to obscure the issues of today at every turn.

Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. You can reach him at kaddo@theadvocate.com.