Gov. John Bel Edwards joined a group of state legislators on Thursday to tour LSU's Middleton Library, long seen as a symbol of just how bad conditions have gotten on college campuses after years of neglect in the state's construction spending.
"It's not just about optics, but the optics are pretty bad," Edwards said after the tour. "This is what you get from years of neglect."
What they get: A basement that floods so regularly a vacuum is kept on hand for when it rains, floors that are patched and pocked, ripped up and stained aging furniture in common areas, and bubbled and cracked wallpaper-covered rooms that are awash in yellow from the buzzing fluorescent lights.
"We just have to do better," Edwards said. "This is our flagship ... It's unfortunate that we've gotten to this point of peril."
Edwards, a Democrat, agreed to tour the library following a Twitter exchange about legislators seeing first-hand what years of deferred maintenance have done to the state's flagship university and other campuses across the state.
He noted that the conditions are likely worse on other campuses throughout the state that receive even less funding than LSU.
"You're going to see this and worse all over," Edwards said.
LSU has a maintenance backlog of about $700 million, including about $30 million that has been requested for library upgrades but not funded.
And there is no clear path to a major boost in legislative funding for such projects in sight.
LSU Executive Vice President and Provost Richard J. Koubek said that Middleton could really use a $100 million complete overhaul but will instead settle for a first-floor renovation at a cost of about $8.5 million, paid for partly through private donations.
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Over the course of Thursday's tour, Roger Husser, the assistant vice president for planning, design and construction at LSU, pointed to areas of critical need, like the buckling and stained ceiling tiles.
"It's emblematic of what you'll see across our campus," Husser said.
"LSU is doing everything with the resources we have to keep it safe, keep it viable," Husser told the group as they walked across sheets of wood that have been used to patch holes in the basement floor.
Walking down a narrow strip between rows of dingy book cases, Edwards pointed down to a crumbling sunken hole in the ground, likely the result of someone stepping on a board that had been weakened by the water that leaks into the room when it rains.
Most of the legislators who joined Edwards, all LSU graduates and ranging in age, voiced at some point on the tour that they felt they were walking back in time because the building hasn't changed much since they left.
"It looks the same," Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, marveled as the group walked past dingy rows of books.
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In addition to Claitor, legislators who joined the governor on the tour included Republican Reps. Mark Abraham of Lake Charles; Paula Davis and Franklin Foil of Baton Rouge; and Major Thibaut of New Roads. Edwards noted that Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, was also supposed to take part in the tour but had to stay at the State Capitol for legislation pending on the House floor.
"As a graduate of LSU, it was very eye-opening that just this one building would need $30 million in repairs," Abraham said. "I did not know that it was in such bad shape. A lot of people do not even realize."
On the third floor, the group spread out in one of the main rooms, lined with thread-bare, bright red carpet and dotted with wooden furniture that seemed to be from another era.
Several of the lawmakers leaned in together to point out that it's the same chairs and carpet they remember from when they attended LSU and studied in the same room.
"It was a nice tour, but nothing we didn't already know," Claitor said afterward. "We've been putting off maintenance for far too long."
The total deferred maintenance backlog across the state's two- and four-year public colleges is nearly $2 billion. The money is needed for long-delayed projects that are meant to address normal wear-and-tear that buildings go through and prevent larger-scale projects that are needed when things get in a condition beyond simple repairs.
The state's decision to put off such upgrades came as funding for higher education was deeply slashed over the past eight years.
"The fact of the matter is that worsened the problem," Edwards said. "We've got to do better."