By Robert Mann
Now that former Gov. Bobby Jindal is gone and, with him, his lust for slashing university budgets, many assumed state lawmakers and a new governor might begin reinvesting in our state’s most valuable resource – its young people. How wrong they were.
In the messy three-week special session that ended Wednesday, lawmakers left behind a $50 million hole in the current year’s budget and an $800 million shortfall for the fiscal year beginning in July. The Republican-led House proved inept at handling the state’s fiscal affairs. More precisely, too many members were afraid to defy business lobbyists to fund adequately health care and the state’s universities.
For those looking for good news from this session, there is little. In particular, this is probably the best higher education can expect from the state, at least in the next four years.
Last year, Gov. John Bel Edwards campaigned on the promise to reinvest in higher education. Specifically, he wanted to move university budgets towards a 50-50 ratio of state appropriations to self-generated revenue. (Universities now get about a third of their funding directly from the state, down from more than 50 percent when Jindal became governor.)
It’s clear that Edwards might as well have promised every child a pony. Edwards is not to blame for lawmakers’ failure. Unlike the House GOP, he had a reasonable plan to put the state on sound fiscal footing.
In another special session later this year, there’s the slight chance that legislators might curtail further the overly generous tax exemptions and credits it showered on business in the past decade, although lawmakers seem determined to keep studying that issue, not take action. Because the legislative session that begins on Monday is not a fiscal session, they cannot pass any new tax increases until June.
Maybe lawmakers will summon some courage by summer and enact additional revenue in another special session. The price of oil might rocket to $100 a barrel.
OK, that’s enough dreaming. What is the likelihood that the average Republican legislator will feel any more courageous by summer or next year, one year closer to re-election? As for oil, it’s reckless to tie higher education and health care to the fluctuations of a volatile world commodity like oil.
So, where does that leave us? With chronically underfunded universities and thousands of sick and disabled residents, many of whom can’t be certain their critical needs will be addressed.
Top faculty will continue their exodus. As state funding declines and tuition and fees rise, universities like Alabama and Ole Miss will appear more attractive to Louisiana high school graduates. Like me, you probably know high school students who are considering colleges in other states. Given recent events, they should.
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