More than 20 years ago, the empty complex on LSU property along Perkins Road was emblematic of Louisiana’s failure to grasp the future.
Built in large part by a gift from the late C.B. Pennington, state government in the grip of the crash of the oil and gas economy could not find the money to open the facility.
It was a damning indictment of the dependence of Louisiana on oil revenue. The complex was a physical testament to our collective unwillingness to invest in intellectual factories that could power a better future for the state.
Fortunately, over the years, the resources have been found to populate and even expand the academic and clinical sides of LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
During the terms of Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco, higher education in general and Pennington in particular became priorities for state investment. As with anything involving politics and money, it’s not been always easy. But the result is growing intellectual prominence by Pennington researchers and an increasing economic impact for every dollar that the state put in the center
Now, under Gov. Bobby Jindal, the growth and increasingly international fame of Pennington in its field is in danger.
And the danger is typified by another gleaming facade along Perkins, the newly built clinical research building. Funded in part by both Blanco and Jindal administrations, only two of the four floors are occupied. Lacking the money for operating expenses, there are no plans by the center’s leadership to occupy the space — even as billions are waiting to be spent by pharmaceutical and food companies for research that could lead to new products. A new imaging center at Pennington is also in limbo.
Two years of state budget cuts reduced Pennington’s operating budget by about 20 percent. The good news is that this year further deep cuts are averted. Because of the national recession, some of Louisiana’s competitor states are hurting, too — but often they’ve managed to find money for priorities, such as the worldwide boom in biomedical research and eventual job development from it. Pennington researchers are still being “poached” by other universities around the country.
Alas, the half-used clinical building is another symbol of what the priorities have been for Jindal and most legislators, many of whom seek re-election this year. Before the national recession, the administration and Legislature cut state income taxes in a major policy reversal that reduced state revenue drastically.
With the decline in hurricane recovery spending, combined with a national recession, the state no longer has resources for higher education — as the more than $300 million cut during the past three years from colleges and research facilities demonstrates.
Centers such as Pennington and the LSU Agricultural Center have no students, so they cannot raise tuition to compensate for cuts. And while they can get more income from federal research grants, only a part of that money covers overhead; the grants won’t come if the center can’t use state dollars to pay the researchers who provide the intellectual muscle to get the grants in the first place.
A half-empty new clinical building is the result.
We hope voters recognize that the half-empty building on Perkins Road is not an accident but a direct consequence of a state leadership prioritizing tax cuts over education. Voters should seek an explanation, particularly from members of Baton Rouge’s regional delegation: Why did they vote for the income tax repeals that hurt LSU and other colleges, and what will they do now to restore our fortunes?
In the late 1980s, the generation typified by Foster and Blanco was energized by the horrid example of the empty Pennington complex. They wanted to turn Louisiana around, and that opening that center is one of the ways to do it.
Is there another epiphany to be found this year?
We hope so.