Lanny Keller: Given the budget-cut boom set to lower on higher education, maybe panic is a rational response _lowres

Joseph Rallo (Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG)

The heads of Louisiana’s embattled colleges have a message: Don’t Panic!

Given the challenges ahead, and the willingness of higher education leadership to kowtow to the governor in past years, the troops may require just a bit more convincing.

“There is hope on the horizon,” LSU President F. King Alexander said in a video talk to LSU’s community, saying that Gov. Bobby Jindal, legislative leaders and higher education are working together to avoid cuts to LSU.

Would that LSU’s constituencies, or those of any other state institution, could believe that the governor and lawmakers have their interests at heart. Instead, the political leadership under Jindal has jettisoned more than 20 years of economic development policy, including that of Republican Mike Foster and Democrat Kathleen Blanco, focused on nationally competitive universities.

The new priorities are tax cuts mostly for businesses and the wealthy taxpayers, in what is indisputably among the lowest-taxed states in the nation.

In a brazen display of hypocrisy, the chairs of the House and Senate education committees deplored the financial crises of their own making at a recent higher ed conference at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. An orgy of blaming the victims is one of the Legislature’s favorite group activities.

That venue is particularly telling. Pennington has no students to charge tuition to make up for the cuts under Jindal, for which the committee chairmen voted; they would not be committee chairmen if they had not.

Pennington’s international stature in nutrition and its genetic studies are in grave danger. That has huge and negative implications for the state’s capacity to be part of the 21st Century economy.

Taxation-by-tuition has been the “anti-tax” Jindal’s MO. That is not changing anytime soon, whatever Alexander might see on the horizon. For Southern University, the prospects are worse; raising tuition hammers an institution that is declining in enrollment. Under Jindal, we’ve also raised tuition again and again at Baton Rouge Community College and its peers; those are supposed to be the cheaper access routes to higher education.

It will take a decade, even if the governor and Legislature decided tomorrow to raise more money for higher education, to repair today’s “flagship” university and its essential peers in other systems.

The short-term prospect is not very good. The artist Rube Goldberg was famous for his sketches of elaborate machinery that were complex ways to do simple things; Jindal has outdone the master with his fiscal year 2016 budget proposal.

As The Advocate has reported, the “plan” targets a handful of tax exemptions for potential suspension. The real money is in the business inventory tax credit. Left alone are exemptions that Jindal aides have previously criticized. That makes no sense.

Even if every single Jindal budget recommendation were adopted, Rube Goldberg fashion, higher ed would still be in the crosshairs for $200 million or more in new cuts.

That’s in addition to Jindal’s reducing state aid to universities by hundreds of millions in the past five years. Speaking of hypocrisy, one reason we still have functioning universities is that Jindal accepted billions in stimulus funds from the man he describes as the archenemy, President Barack Obama.

Panic doesn’t help anything? Maybe not, but it could be a rational response to the situation as it stands today.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is