A group of Republican state representatives accused Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office Monday of trying to secretly have State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell fired for speaking out against the governor’s proposed budget for next year.
The legislators said they have “reliable” information that Jindal recently sent Deputy Chief of Staff Taylor Teepell to talk to members of the Louisiana Board of Regents, the state’s higher education policy board, about having Purcell removed from office.
In response, legislators led by state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, put out a statement Monday to “condemn” the Jindal administration and calling on the governor to apologize to the Board of Regents.
Henry said he and his colleagues felt compelled to say something over what they described as the governor’s pattern of intimidating people who don’t agree with him.
“Clearly, the governor would prefer to run the state like a dictatorship,” Henry said. “He shouldn’t be in the business of trying to fire people for telling the truth.”
Regents Chairman Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry said although, “it’s common knowledge throughout higher education that the administration is upset with Purcell,” he’s not aware of any push to have him fired.
“The administration has some dissatisfaction with him about messaging,” Rasberry said. “They’ve talked to him in the past and sent messages to him through other people. But this is common knowledge. And this is just another distraction; there is nothing positive about this. We’re looking for solutions.”
Regents Vice Chairman Joseph Wiley also acknowledged friction between Purcell and the governor’s staff, but said no one has asked him if he’s willing to vote to fire Purcell.
“There are always items of interest from the administration over what’s being said. They would like more emphasis placed on the positive,” Wiley said.
Neither Jindal nor Purcell responded to interview requests made through staffers Monday.
The apparent conflict started over concerns Purcell raised about Jindal’s $24.7 billion spending plan for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Jindal’s budget relies heavily on so-called “one-time” money that likely won’t be available next year and contingency money from property sales and lawsuit settlements that may not materialize this year.
Should any of those contingency dollars fail to show up, the governor’s budget calls for higher education funding to be cut the corresponding amount.
Earlier this month, Purcell stated publicly the heavy use of one-time funds and contingency money “fundamentally changes the manner in which higher education has been historically funded.”
He added that the uncertainty of those funding sources makes it difficult for colleges and universities to hire staff, negotiate teaching contracts and generally run a campus.
Talk that Jindal was upset over Purcell’s comments and wanted him gone began circulating around the State Capitol shortly afterward.
Last week, Purcell said no one from the Governor’s Office had threatened him about losing his job, but he didn’t respond directly when asked if Jindal’s office tried to intimidate him.
“My job is to do the work of the board,” Purcell said. “As long as I do that, I feel that I’ll be employed.”
Several top Jindal aides have said one-time money and contingency funding are routinely used in state budgeting and have never led to catastrophe. They argue that higher education would be facing a 19 percent cut, if not for one-time funds and contingency money.
Monday evening Jindal’s press office released a statement further defending the governor’s budget proposal.
The statement reads: “We make no apologies for standing up for higher education institutions and our students ... We think it’s irresponsible to make reductions to higher education’s budget when there are dollars available.”
State Rep. Brett Geymann, R- Lake Charles, said although none of the regents are willing to say publicly that Jindal wants Purcell fired, he and his colleagues feel “strongly enough” in their sources to believe that’s the case.
“We’ll have plenty of disagreements with Purcell over policy, but we don’t think it’s right that Purcell is not able to present his concerns over budget issues without being pressured and intimidated. We just don’t think that it’s right,” Geymann said.
The Republican legislators who attached their names to the statement calling on the Governor’s Office to apologize to the Board of Regents include: Henry; Geymann; Lance Harris, of Alexandria; Jim Morris, of Oil City; J. Rogers Pope, of Denham Springs; and John Schroder, of Covington.