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Are Louisiana GOP lawmakers budget hawks or chicken hawks?

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By Robert Mann

After eight years of enabling then-Gov. Bobby Jindal as he mismanaged Louisiana’s budget process, isn’t it remarkable that some prominent Republicans in the Legislature have suddenly grown a backbone? Apparently, the gestation period for valor among certain Louisiana lawmakers is precisely eight years – and birth occurs only when a Democrat is governor.

To briefly recap, Jindal slashed taxes on upper-income taxpayers and gave away generous tax exemptions to various industries. He shifted the burden for much of that lost revenue onto college students by cutting their schools’ budgets and raising their tuition. Faced with enormous deficits, Jindal wouldn’t consider the slightest tax hike. Instead, he stuffed his budgets with embarrassing amounts of one-time money from every trust fund he could pilfer or every state asset he could peddle.

In 2008, Jindal inherited a budget surplus of almost a billion dollars. Eight years later, he left his successor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, a mid-year budget shortfall of about $750 million and a shortfall of almost $2 billion for the next fiscal year.

For much of Jindal’s two terms, GOP lawmakers rarely opposed Jindal – and when they did, their protests were often halfhearted and brief. Most legislators knew Jindal and his aides were selling them phony numbers, but they passed his budgets anyway. As he decimated funding for universities, they did little beyond approving tuition increases (by 66 percent since 2008).

Last year, Jindal’s budget mess threatened Louisiana higher education and public health care. So, legislators sensibly did what they could to raise revenue to keep Louisiana’s schools and hospitals open (for only half the fiscal year, it turns out).

Now, many of these lawmakers have not only found their voice and independent spirit; they have also been born again as unrelenting fiscal conservatives. Many of these intrepid souls insist the problem can be – must be – solved with budget cuts alone.

Although he offers no specifics about what should be should cut, Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, said recently that he would reject “a budget that raises taxes on Louisiana families or businesses. Despite what some in Baton Rouge may think, we cannot tax our way out of this hole.” Hollis arrived in the Legislature in 2012, so he may have missed the news that almost $1 billion in income tax cuts(bipartisan legislation that his party supported in 2007 and 2008) is partly, if not largely, responsible for Louisiana’s revenue shortfall.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, is even more pugnacious – and arrogant – in her determination to resist tax increases. “We don’t need concessions,” she told a gathering in Baton Rouge recently. “We won.”

Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, also opposes any tax increases. Unlike Hollis and Hodges, however, Henry has an idea about where lawmakers should cut – higher education. “Though higher ed general fund dollars have been cut a little bit,” Henry said recently, “they’ve matched those with self-generated tuition increases and some fees.”

Henry is badly misinformed. He and his colleagues cut higher education substantially. For example, in 2009, the total of direct state appropriations and tuition to LSU was $797 million. In 2016, it is $691 million. At LSU alone, 363 teaching jobs (almost 8 percent of the faculty) were eliminated; another 1,561 staff members were laid off or not replaced. But Henry thinks LSU and other universities need deeper cuts?

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

 

Mired in mediocrity, has Louisiana higher education lost the battle?

 

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Plastic sheeting over copies of the Congress Record in the basement of LSU’s Middleton Library.

By Robert Mann

Imagine you designed a magic building that enabled a young person who stepped inside to emerge on the other end with special knowledge he or she did not have upon entering. Imagine that every young person who spent time in your building left armed, not only with knowledge but also with unlimited possibility and the almost-certain guarantee of earning 83 percent more than his or her peers who had never stepped into that building.

Imagine a building that transformed ignorance into understanding, indifference into curiosity and hopelessness into potential.

One might also imagine that if you held the keys to such a building, you would be quite wealthy. Leaders from far-flung states and communities would descend on you, hoping to divine your secret. Eventually, people everywhere would demand such a magical edifice for their young people.

Of course, we have such places in almost every city of decent size. These are our colleges and universities, but they aren’t truly magical. They’re just extraordinary and priceless treasures that many Louisiana’s leaders have demeaned and often ignored. They treat these treasures like a burden. They have sometimes vilified those who work there (unless the employee is a winning football coach, in which case he is worshiped as a god and paid like a king).

This past week, Louisiana launched its biannual budget-cutting saga in which LSU and the state’s other universities are threatened with annihilation. Thus, I began my own biannual period of despondency over the state’s indifference to higher education and its unwillingness to nurture these enchanted institutions that we treat like trash.

We’ve been doing this for too long. The state’s coffers dry up. The size of the shortfall is staggering. Because almost everything is protected by statuary or constitutional dedications, the only places to cut deeply are higher education and health care. Thereupon, LSU and its sister institutions are seized as hostages, threatened with destruction until enough public outrage and fear prompt lawmakers and the governor to pony up the funds to keep the lights on and classes running.

Last week, I ginned up my anger at lawmakers and former Gov. Bobby Jindal, once again, for the damage they did to our colleges and all the ways they have deprived so many young people of a shot at education’s brass ring. Hoping to blow off some steam, I took a walk around the LSU campus, poking my head into this and that building, observing at every turn decades of neglect and the toll that time, weather and wear have taken on so many buildings on that otherwise lovely campus. It’s the same, or worse, on dreary college campuses across the state.

That is when I realized that walking is good for the mind as well as the body. As I marched back to my office, I began to wonder if my anger at our former governor was at least partly unfair. Some of these buildings were dumps before anyone ever heard of Jindal.

For example, I’ve been visiting LSU’s Middleton Library since the late 1980s and had to admit its smell and grungy appearance has always repulsed me. Jindal’s neglect didn’t help matters and certainly made them worse at Middleton (especially the pitiful salaries for library faculty and staff and the decimated budget for book and database acquisitions).

I must acknowledge, too, that Louisiana higher education has been a neglected stepchild for generations. Even when governors like Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco were “showering” our universities with funds, it was never enough to make them what they could or should be. At almost every turn, Louisiana’s leaders and its residents were satisfied with good enough. Too often, excellence was not the goal unless we were talking about athletics.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Sinking Flagship: A new look at LSU’s Middleton Library

 

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The ceiling of room 230-A of LSU’s Middleton Library

By Robert Mann

LSU’s Middleton Library is a disgusting dump. A building this deplorable would be an embarrassment to a developing country, but seems fine to Louisiana’s citizens and the big donors who give generously to athletics and other areas of the campus.

Official tours of the campus never escort high school students into the library, for obvious reasons. One look at this sad, neglected building by a potential recruit and the University of Alabama or Ole Miss would soon gain a new student.

In a previous post, I presented disturbing photos of the decrepit condition of the library on all five floors, particularly the basement, which floods regularly.

The more I look at the library, the worse it gets. Today, let’s look at room 230-A.

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Room 230-A of the Middleton Library

This is a room in a part of the building few students visit, unless they have a course in one of several classrooms on the second floor. Room 230-A hosts about five classes a day. They are courses in library usage and research for non-Library Science students.

Room 230-A, like much of the building, is appalling and an embarrassment. While it sports adequate furniture and decent computer equipment, this sad space says everything about the (minor) importance the state’s citizens and its political leadership assign to what goes on there.

Put another way, by the looks of Middleton Library, in general, and room 230-A, in particular, Louisiana’s citizens couldn’t care less about what happens in this building.

Ceiling tiles are missing. Many are stained. Most have collapsed and have been glued back in the most unsightly manner possible. The covers for nine of the 12 light fixtures in this room are missing. Four of the light fixtures do not work at all. The clock in the room is off by three hours.

Take a look at this room in the following pictorial presentation (I took these photos last Wednesday morning).

Would you pay good money to send your child to a university that requires him or her to attend classes in a room like this? Continue reading “Sinking Flagship: A new look at LSU’s Middleton Library”

Let’s demand truth about Louisiana’s budget for a change

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Former Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols

By Robert Mann

Clearing off my cluttered desk the other day, I came across an op-ed by Kristy Nichols, the financial con artist who was former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s commissioner of administration. Last April, as the Legislature debated revenue measures to prevent higher education’s collapse, Nichols wrote an opinion piece for NOLA.com that was breathtaking for its mendacity. Nine months later, I’m still gobsmacked by her ostensible estrangement from reality.

“Fearless. Brave. Determined,” Nichols wrote, quoting a Times-Picayune editorial that demanded the aforementioned characteristics from Jindal and lawmakers. “In fact,” Nichols wrote, “those qualities are on display every day as Louisiana’s leaders work to solve a shortfall created by declining oil prices and corporate welfare.”

Nichols’ op-ed overflowed with such claptrap. She claimed Jindal’s budget proposal “included more than $650 million in new revenue solutions that would fully protect college and university funding across the state.” Ignoring her boss’ eight years of reckless budgeting, Nichols wrote these words with no trace of irony: “[L]eadership requires the ability to see past the short-term and create sustainable solutions that make our state better.”

Nichols bragged that under Jindal, “we’ve seen unprecedented growth in our economy and today have more people working than ever before. Raising taxes is not the answer. Asking our citizens to subsidize business will not help our state.”

Nichols’ piece is worth re-reading if only to remind us that Jindal’s budgeting was so dishonest and irresponsible that his accounting practices should be made a crime, punishable by a few months in the slammer. Although she and Jindal claimed their budget would fund higher education and other important services until the fiscal year’s end (June 30), we now know their budget was an epic sham.

State government faces a mid-year budget shortfall of $750 million. Despite Jindal’s false assertion that the “new revenue” didn’t come from tax increases, almost everyone but the former governor’s family and staff acknowledged the truth. Lawmakers and the governor raised taxes – just not nearly enough to keep state government open through the fiscal year.

Nichols’ mendacious piece is more than just a maddening blast from the past. It’s a cautionary tale worth remembering as Gov. John Bel Edwards and his commissioner of administration, Jay Dardenne, deal with Jindal’s budget chaos.

The lesson? All of us – citizens, journalists and legislators – should view every statement from any governor and his or her Division of Administration with healthy skepticism.

Continue reading at this link.

Mike the Tiger threatened by leak in LSU’s Foster Hall

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The first Mike the Tiger, who is housed in the LSU Museum of Natural Science in Foster Hall
By Robert Mann

In our continuing saga about the crumbling LSU campus, we look at Foster Hall, just north of the Middleton Library.

 

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LSU’s Foster Hall
Foster Hall houses the LSU Museum of Natural Science. According to its website, the museum’s mission “is acquisition, preservation, and study of research collections by Museum faculty, staff, students and associates to generate knowledge of global biodiversity and human prehistory, to promote an understanding and appreciation of nature through excellence in science education for the benefit of the people of the state, the nation, and the world.”

The museum also houses the stuffed remains of the first Mike the Tiger, a major attraction for school groups and others. It’s a hidden wonder of Baton Rouge and LSU. You could pass several delightful hours taking in its extensive collections.

 

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Exhibits in the LSU Museum of Natural Science in Foster Hall
I knew about this remarkable  museum as a child living in Beaumont, Texas. You see, the museum was then the home of one of its founders and one of my heroes, Dr. George Lowery, the author of the magnificent ornithology book, Louisiana Birds. I still treasure the letter I received from Lowery sometime in the late 1960s, after I wrote him a fan letter.

The museum houses a world-class collection of bird specimens. According the museum’s website, its bird collection “(more than 178,000 specimens) is the third-largest university-based collection in the world (behind Harvard and Berkeley). The museum’s holdings of birds from Peru, Bolivia, the West Indies, and the Southeastern United States are the largest in the world, and the collection is among the 5-10 largest in the world from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Argentina. The collection contains 140,000 skins, 22,000 complete skeletons, 8,000 fluid-preserved specimens, 12,000 stomach-content samples, and thousands of tape-recordings of bird vocalizations.”

This important collection can also be lost if Foster Hall is not properly maintained. And it’s not. Among other problems, the ceiling leaks. The photographs below were taken on Thursday by a faculty member at the museum.

Today, Mike I is threatened. Next week, it could be the museum’s valuable bird collection. Continue reading “Mike the Tiger threatened by leak in LSU’s Foster Hall”

The disgraceful windows of LSU’s Hatcher and Johnston halls

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Rusted window of LSU’s Hatcher Hall
By Robert Mann

LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva has said that when he first arrived at LSU, he was struck by the poor condition of Tiger Stadium, particularly its rusted and broken windows.

“So we launched the campaign to replace every window in the facility, beginning with the north end where thousands of fans gather each Saturday to see the football team and the Tiger Marching Band march down Victory Hill,” Alleva said in 2010. “We only have one Tiger Stadium. We’re not going to build a new Tiger Stadium. It’s our venue. It’s a great venue for watching football, but we need to take care of it.”

The Tiger Stadium Windows Project was a huge success. Within no time, the Tiger Athletic Foundation raised the money to replace 428 windows in the stadium at $2,000 each.

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Plaque on the east side of Tiger Stadium

Today, Tiger Stadium is a sparkling facility, the result of hundreds of millions in renovations and additions over the past five years. The stadium is, undoubtedly, the most treasured and important building on the LSU campus — far more significant to the citizens of Louisiana than the Middleton Library, which has fallen on hard times.

 

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New windows on the east side of Tiger Stadium

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East side of Tiger Stadium

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East side of Tiger Stadium. Even some of the more unsightly portions of the stadium have new windows

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New windows on the east side of Tiger Stadium
 

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New windows on the east side of Tiger Stadium

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Screenshot of Tiger Stadium windows during the window replacement project (Screenshot from Preservedeathvalley.com)

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Screenshot of Tiger Stadium during the window replacement project (Screenshot from  preservedeathvalley.com)
 

Across from my office in Hodges Hall, I can see Tiger Stadium and the building next door, Hatcher Hall. It rests literally within the shadow of Tiger Stadium. Among other things, Hatcher houses the LSU Speech & Hearing Clinic, Academic Programs Abroad, LSU’s Global Program and LSU International Services.  Continue reading “The disgraceful windows of LSU’s Hatcher and Johnston halls”

Many of LSU decrepit buildings are inhospitable, inaccessible to disabled students

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LSU’s Himes Hall is one of several building on campus without an elevator

From the LSU Daily Reveille, October 2015:

By Carrie Grace Henderson

When interdisciplinary studies senior Sean Thompson treks to class every day, he takes special care to look for cracks in the sidewalk that might tear up the wheels on his chair.

Though Thompson saw improvements this semester – “The sidewalks are wider and smoother” – he wants to make sure he leaves his alma mater in better shape than he found it, which is why he and economics senior Michael Panther Mayen started the Disability Student Organization.

“We were surprised there was nothing like it on campus, so we decided to do it ourselves,” Thompson said. “We wouldn’t want to leave without having it started.”

Though DSO is less than two weeks old, its members already aim to amplify the individual concerns of disabled students while also providing a place for them to socialize and vent.

“Our biggest goal for this semester is to bring awareness to students, professors and faculty,” Mayen said. “We want to get students with disabilities together and say, ‘What are your concerns?’”

Thompson, like many disabled students, sees campus in terms of accessibility.

He leaves early on days when he’ll have to enter buildings that have two sets of doors and memorized which buildings don’t have elevators and which ones are likely out of order.

Continue reading on The Daily Reveille’s website at this link.

The dump that is LSU’s Dalrymple Building

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Entrance to the Annex building of LSU’s Dalrymple Building, in the shadow of Tiger Stadium

By Robert Mann

Let’s face it, behind its lovely facade, much of the LSU campus is a dump. Drive around campus. Looking at it through your windshield, you’ll be inspired by LSU’s stunning live oaks and its grand old buildings. Park your car, walk inside many of those “grand” buildings, however, and you’ll be appalled.

In my recent column on NOLA.com and a separate pictorial blog post, I documented the deplorable state of the LSU Middleton Library. It’s a disgusting facility, just a three-minute walk from the palace known as the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes (the former gym-armory, restored in 2002 with more than $15 million in private funding).

In the coming weeks, I will document the sad state of other buildings around the LSU campus. (I’m open to suggestions from students, faculty and staff about which buildings to investigate next. Also, if you work on another Louisiana college campus, please send me photos of your deplorable workspace, as I know LSU isn’t the only Louisiana public university with a campus in sad shape.)

It should also be noted that many academic buildings at LSU are in fine shape. French House, the home of the Odgen Honors College, is getting a much-needed renovation. There will soon be a massive restored building for the Engineering School. The Student Union was recently upgraded and expanded. My own school’s Journalism Building was restored more than a dozen years ago (although, don’t mind the frequent water leaks that are responsible for ceiling tiles that regularly collapse onto students’ desks and employee work spaces. And please overlook the disturbing black soot that spews from the air conditioning vents year round.)

But just as many buildings, or more, are in such a state of disrepair that it should shame every citizen of Louisiana. On one side of “the tracks,” the athletic facilities are state of the art. No expense (it’s mostly private money) is spared for the comfort and education of athletes.

But, believe me, expenses are spared when it comes to the education of “regular” students.

Today, we direct our gaze to the Dalrymple Building, another building that rests in the proverbial and literal shadow of Tiger Stadium on Campus Drive, just a block off Field House Drive.

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Dalrymple Hall on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus

On the second floor, is an ecology lab run by Associate Professor Linda Hooper-Bùi, of the Department of Environmental Science with the school’s College of the Coast & Environment. Among other things, Hooper-Bùi studies ants. She’s a remarkable scholar and teacher. She won the 2012 Southeastern Branch of the Entomological Society of America’s 2012 award for Distinguished Achievement in Teaching. Her enthusiasm for her work and her students is immediately infectious.

That is why it was so disheartening to receive a tour of her second-floor lab in Dalrymple and the adjacent annex building, where she and her students must conduct their work. The tap water in the lab is filthy and unsafe to drink, Hooper-Bùi says. There is no hot running water. I saw that for myself, trying without success to turn on hot-water taps.  Students must trek to the Student Union periodically to fill water bottles to be used in the lab and for drinking and making coffee.

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Students use a jug like this to bring in water to the lab from the Student Union.
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No hot water and the cold water is not fit to drink.

Below are a few more photos of spaces within the second-floor lab. Notice the condition of the walls and windows. Imagine if this were the condition of a window in the Provost’s Office or in that of a football coach.

If that were the case, how long do you imagine it would take for repairs to be ordered and completed?

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Note the paper towels stuffed into the window to serve as “insulation.”

Continue reading “The dump that is LSU’s Dalrymple Building”

Why a Republican House speaker isn’t necessarily bad for John Bel Edwards – or Louisiana

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Louisiana House Speaker Taylor Barras
By Robert Mann

Okay, Democrats and other passionate supporters of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. It’s time to take a deep breath. The election of New Iberia Republican Taylor Barras as Louisiana House speaker is not the end of the world. In fact, it’s the beginning of a new world in Louisiana politics.

Long term, that is not bad for democracy and separation of powers in Louisiana. I mean, it’s 2016. Shouldn’t we try majority rule and co-equal branches of government for a couple of years to see if that might work in the Bayou State? I’m sure if he were alive, James Madison would urge us to give it a shot.

Do I wish the Legislature had mustered the courage to try majority rule in 2008, when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal coerced lawmakers to install his choice for speaker, Republican Rep. Jim Tucker, in spite of a Democratic majority in the House? Of course, I do.

And, I wish the current Republican House majority would acknowledge the fact that what it would never have accepted in 2008 (a speaker from the majority party) is now expected as a natural right.

In this case, Republicans aren’t really wedded to the idea of separation of powers. They are wedded to the idea of power – and, of course, they have every right to be.

If Republican lawmakers were honest, however, they’d admit that they would have never settled for a Democratic majority exerting its right to defy Jindal and elect a Democratic speaker. Imagine the howls of protest and the punishment Jindal and his allies would have meted out to those who defied them. (Well, we don’t have to imagine what happened to those who defied Jindal. It was called “unemployment.”)

That said, I fault Democrats in the House and Senate in 2008 for not asserting their rights. Many were cowards, too easily intimated by the imperial governor. If they had mustered the courage to try majority rule in 2008, the result might have been messy, but does anyone doubt the state would be better off today if Jindal hadn’t had his way in almost every respect the first five years of his governorship?

So, let’s move on and acknowledge that running our business like every other state is probably not a bad idea. Louisiana governors – Republican or Democrat – should never again have as much power as lawmakers and others gave them over the decades. Our unique arrangement (the governor naming the House speaker and Senate president) bred corruption, excess and abuse of power. It gave us corrupt, too-powerful governors like Bobby Jindal and Edwin Edwards.

But there is another reason supporters of John Bel Edwards shouldn’t despair over the election of Barras as speaker. First, if we’re going to have a GOP speaker, and his name isn’t Chris Broadwater, it might as well be someone like Barras. By all accounts, the term-limited Barras is not a right-wing ideologue like Rep. Cameron Henry, once the leading GOP candidate for speaker. A former Democrat, Barras is well liked by his colleagues on both sides. He seems like a decent sort who will try to make the House work as it should. Continue reading “Why a Republican House speaker isn’t necessarily bad for John Bel Edwards – or Louisiana”

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