DEM 2016 Convention

Former Democratic Presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) ORG XMIT: DNC432

A new group that stemmed from the Democratic presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders is urging his Louisiana backers to oppose a constitutional amendment that would allow colleges and universities to raise tuition rates, officials said Thursday.

The issue surfaced during a meeting of the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors, which like other higher education groups backs the Nov. 8 proposal – Constitutional Amendment 2.

Rachel Kincaid, vice president of external affairs, told the board that Sanders and his team are urging defeat  of the measure. "We just know that he sent out a message to his constituents to vote against it," Kincaid said after the meeting.

Hours later a spokesman for the Vermont senator said Sanders himself has not weighed in on the topic.

However, a Sanders-inspired group called Our Revolution opposed the tuition plan on its list of ballot measures nationwide.

"Louisiana voters fund the state's public college and university system with their tax dollars, and like residents of every other state, they deserve to have a say in tuition and fee costs," the group said in a position paper.

"At a time when public colleges are increasingly unaffordable, it makes no sense to allow college boards to raise tuition and fee amounts with no accountability to Louisiana residents," according to the organization.

The disclosure of opposition from a group tied to a former presidential candidate was a surprise to board members.

"Bernie Sanders?" asked Jimmie Martin Jr., who lives in Cut Off and is chairman of the panel.

The board of Our Revolution said it is "committed to Bernie's bold progressive agenda."

Free tuition at  public colleges and universities was one of Sanders' key themes in his losing bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his bid sparked widespread support from young voters.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the Louisiana Democratic primary on March 5.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Morrish, R-Jennings, sponsor of the legislation that paved the way for the amendment, laughed Thursday when he heard of  Thursday's developments.

Morrish also noted that, under his plan, colleges and universities could raise, lower or even abolish tuition.

"If he likes free tuition he can come down and lobby the universities to offer free tuition," he said. "Bernie Sanders should be supporting No. 2 because it gives the universities authority to offer free tuition if they so choose."

The UL System board oversees nine colleges and universities, including the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Southeastern Louisiana University.

Louisiana is one of two states that require legislative approval to boost tuition.

The requirement here is two-thirds of the Legislature.

The only other state with such a rule is Florida, which requires majority approval from state lawmakers.

Backers say the proposal would allow higher education leaders to balance budgets, especially amid years of reductions in state aid for colleges and universities.

Opponents contend current rules ensure that tuition rates remain affordable.

Kincaid said two polls done by Southern Media & Opinion Research show the measure winning support from about 60 percent of voters, who will decide the issue on Nov. 8.

For that reason, Kincaid said political consultants have urged supporters to delay high-profile efforts for the amendment until the final days before the election.

Billboards, social media and advertising are in the plans.

"We are optimistic but we don't want to be overly confident," she told the board.

State aid for colleges and universities has dropped 55 percent since 2008.

Those dollars have been mostly replaced by increases in tuition and fees, which remain among the lowest  in the nation.

A group called Excellence in Higher Education is the key support organization.

Martin said higher education officials need to be reminded that the issue is on next  month's ballot, especially since early voting is underway.

"The voting started on Tuesday," he said. "Now is the time to let our campuses know."


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.