By Robert Mann
You would think that the state’s largest business organization would be alarmed by the looming devastation of Louisiana’s colleges and universities. After all, college graduates help drive Louisiana’s economy. Young people with diplomas earn much more than high school graduates. The more college graduates, the stronger our state’s economy.
However, this business organization — the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) — is run by one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former chiefs of staff, Stephen Waguespack. While it hasn’t always gone along with him (LABI opposes Jindal’s current proposal to increase business taxes), LABI and Jindal are often aligned. With Waguespack now running the association, the Jindal and LABI have been closer than ever.
Despite Waguespack’s presence at the helm, I was sure LABI has had something to say about the huge, looming budget cuts that threaten to devastate the state’s colleges and universities. I was certain that LABI had some plan to avert this approaching calamity. At the very least, I assumed the organization had an official position on the potential cuts. Surely, Waguespack had issued a statement urging legislators to find a way to avoid the deep cuts to higher education.
I was wrong.
After plowing through LABI’s website and coming up dry, I sent a message, via Twitter, to Waguespack, asking for his position on the cuts. He ignored me. So, I contacted the organization’s spokesperson, Amy Benton. I posed this question:
I have combed through your website and do not see a column or any other larger statement about higher education funding (there is some good stuff about workforce development and the WISE program), but I very well may have missed a larger statement by LABI on the importance of fully funding our colleges. If so, could you point me to where LABI has taken a position on the overall question of slashing funding for higher education?
To that, Benton responded by referring me to Waguespack’s most recent column in which he opposes Jindal’s plan to stop rebates on inventory taxes that businesses pay to local governments. Waguespack rightly regards that as a tax increase on business and calls for the complete repeal of the inventory tax, which he says would free up about $450 million for higher education and health care. Benton wrote:
Stephen’s column yesterday directly addressed a critical concern of our members in the proposed budget – the inventory tax credit – as well as offering up an alternative idea that could stimulate our economy AND put more dollars toward higher education than currently proposed. Again, as we noted in the column, repealing the tax itself (not just the credit) will actually result in more dollars for higher education. In short, we reject the position by some that the only way to help higher education succeed is by taking steps to damage the economy. We do not have to sacrifice one for the other.
Of course, Waguespack’s right. The inventory tax should be abolished. The state should stop subsidizing local governments.
But that didn’t answer my questions, which were: where is LABI’s position on the years of deep budget cuts imposed on higher education? Where is LABI’s overall plan to prevent Jindal and lawmakers from starving our colleges and universities? Where is LABI’s program to strengthen Louisiana’s economy by increasing the numbers of college graduates?
Benton helpfully directed me to a collection of columns by Waguespack, most of which discuss workforce development, the need for more STEM graduates and support for the relatively meager WISE program.
At LABI, we have always recognized that an effective higher education system is critical for meeting our state’s workforce development challenge. Our members work closely with and invest heavily in our schools and help them to fulfill their mission. Attached are links to other columns we have released in recent months that mention other ideas that can help our higher educational system be successful, including efforts to support operational and financial autonomy for colleges and universities while also looking for efficiencies, increased accountability and a sharper focus on workforce relevant programming within the systems.
So, I read those columns. The closest thing to a plan for higher education I could find in one of Waguespack’s columns was this statement last month:
Louisiana’s higher education system is quite large compared to our population needs and other state systems. We have five higher education governing boards, as compared to states like North Carolina that enjoy high-achieving systems with only one governing board. We have 14 four-year colleges for our 4.5 million residents while Mississippi has eight four-year colleges for 3 million people. Louisiana’s collective graduation rate is 10 percent lower than the national average, though we spend more per student than Texas and Florida for every graduate.
Unfortunately, there was nothing in those columns that is remotely critical of Jindal and state lawmakers for imposing deep, devastating cuts on colleges and universities. There was nothing about the overall contribution of LSU and other institutions to the culture and intellectual vibrancy of the state. To LABI, it seems, colleges are simply machines to produce workers.
I refuse to believe that all business leaders in the state are as sanguine about higher education’s future as Waguespack and the people who run LABI.
Forgive me, however, for being more than a little surprised to see the state’s largest and most influential business organization show such little concern for the institutions that are so important to our economy and our culture.
It’s not like LABI doesn’t bother thinking about education. It has extensive and aggressive positions on elementary and secondary education.
Some of the silence on higher education funding, of course, has do with LABI’s legitimate concern that the solution will ultimately fall upon the backs and pocketbooks of its members. LABI’s members somehow believe they are overtaxed (they’re not).
Perhaps much of it has to do with Waguespack’s close relationship with Jindal. He is not going to attack his former boss for slashing higher education, especially since Waguespack’s fingerprints are on many of those cuts.
Still, it’s quite remarkable that the state’s major business organization has been content to stand by, mostly silent, while Jindal and lawmakers slowly destroy Louisiana’s colleges and universities.
Business leaders who cared about the future of Louisiana would speak up. Those who care only about their bottom lines, however, would remain silent.