Grace Notes: Senator-popularity ranking hints that David Vitter made the right call _lowres

U.S. Sen. David Vitter

State universities are still not a priority in Louisiana.

The young people of the state fulfilled their part of the TOPS contract by making the good grades demanded by the Legislature as a prerequisite to receiving a tuition-free year at a Louisiana public university.

In the last special session, the Legislature broke the state’s promise to TOPS students and their parents by only partially funding the program for the coming academic year.

The Legislature had an opportunity to fully fund TOPS by reducing by a small amount some of the $8 billion in generous corporate tax exemptions, credits and exclusions, but alas, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Chemical Association and the Koch brothers organization objected and these groups proved to be more politically powerful than the TOPS students and their parents.

Meanwhile, the same legislators who were cutting TOPS funding were in the process of handing out $49,000 scholarships to private Tulane University.

The “special relationship” between Tulane and lawmakers results from a “good ole boy” contract between the state and Tulane that David Vitter tried to terminate when he was a state representative, but was voted down. Under the contract, in return for giving each legislator the right to name a recipient of a full tuition-paid Tulane scholarship, Tulane receives from the state — among other things — an annual tax exemption on all the property that the university owns in Louisiana.

The Tulane legislative scholarship program is a valuable political benefit that Tulane can legally give the lawmakers while state universities are prohibited from giving lawmakers anything of value. As a result, Tulane has as much, if not more, political influence in the Legislature than do the state universities.

In a practice unique to Louisiana, Tulane and the other private universities receive annually from the state a large sum of money from a state offshore settlement fund administered by the Louisiana Board of Regents. This state money could have been used by the underfunded state universities to retain quality professors who have been leaving the state since the Legislature began the gutting of higher education nine years ago.

In the other states, public universities are a priority, a necessary foundation for a better future. In Louisiana, public universities are a luxury to be easily set aside in favor of more powerful political groups.

Howard Franques

retired lawyer