Part of college autonomy plan moves forward _lowres

Advocate Photo – Stafford Palmieri, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s assistant chief of staff, and state Rep. Bryan Adams, R-Gretna, discuss Tuesday legislation that, in part, would remove the Legislative Auditor from oversight of higher education contracts with private businesses.

Louisiana colleges got one step closer Thursday to obtaining authority over some of their operations that now falls on the state.

The House Education Committee voted to send House Bill 766 to the full House, though the legislation is expected to be tweaked some in the coming days to address concerns over audits.

Obtaining at least some autonomy has been identified as a top priority for the state Board of Regents this session, in addition to stable funding.

The change would give schools more flexibility over travel arrangements, information technology purchases and some contracts. That ability is granted to schools under the Louisiana GRAD Act, but it’s tied to academic benchmarks. HB766 would instead grant that flexibility when schools have demonstrated clean financial statements.

Stafford Palmieri, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s assistant chief of staff who spoke on behalf of the proposal, said the bill would make it clear that the GRAD Act is related to tuition-setting authority, while this new legislation would cover operational tasks.

“How do you help the schools reach a higher level of academic performance if they can’t manage their own money?” she said.

The one hang-up in committee dealt with a provision to allow colleges to seek third-party audits.

They now fall under the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s authority.

Daryl Purpera, legislative auditor, said he would be uncomfortable with that arrangement because he’s charged with auditing the state and higher education is a big part of that.

“I can’t opine on financial statements that I haven’t written,” he said. “That puts me in a really bad spot from a CPA’s perspective.”

Palmieri said colleges were seeking that additional autonomy because they believe they can get audit contracts for less than the legislative auditor charges.

“They don’t have a problem with the legislative auditor doing the audit. It’s the amount of money he charges,” she said.

State Rep. Cameron Henry, a Metairie Republican, urged Purpera and higher education leaders to come together to address the issue before the bill hits the House floor.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.