With eyebrows arched and her mouth formed in an O, Elaine Harmon was the picture of incredulity.

The New Orleans mother had just dropped off Kaleb, her son, at West Laville Hall for his first semester in college. She had just been asked how she handled the roughly $1,500 SAVE fee tacked on to Kaleb’s LSU bill in July.

Like many parents, Harmon knew nothing about the fee. She had not kept up with the drama of Louisiana legislators trying to close a $1.6 billion deficit in a way that would not devastate higher education but still would allow Gov. Bobby Jindal to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination without a “tax and spend” moniker.

The fee applies to all 200,000 or so Louisiana students now showing up at public colleges around the state. But it’s not actually listed on the bill. And no student actually pays it.

In fact, Jason Droddy, LSU’s government relations guy, can’t say yet what the exact fee will be. Basically, the state is going to take $350 million — part of the money raised from a package of tax increases and tax break rollbacks — then divide by however many students enroll across the state. Then each institution will receive its share.

Jindal’s team came up with the Student Assessment for a Valuable Education (SAVE) Credit Program to stay in the “swim lanes” acceptable to Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform.

Jindal had promised to veto any state budget not acceptable to Norquist. “The SAVE fund prevents that from happening,” Roy Martin III, one of Jindal’s top donors and chairman of the Board of Regents, told reporters in June prior to the Legislature’s votes on the issue.

Though complex, with lots of moving parts, SAVE essentially requires that the state Department of Revenue calculate the annual tax liability for the average Louisiana household. The Board of Regents then levies a fee of no more than that amount on each Louisiana enrollee. A credit is issued, which the institution then sends to the state.

The state treasurer cuts the college a check, tapping the Higher Education Initiatives Fund, where no more than $350 million from the new tax collections will be parked.

Voilà, a tax is collected, a credit is issued, Norquist is satisfied.

Jindal’s aides, who keep anger close at hand even in the best of times, went apoplectic at critics’ suggestions that SAVE was all phantom hocus pocus aimed only at maintaining Norquist’s goodwill.

Nevertheless, while stumping his House colleagues in support of SAVE, Hammond Republican Rep. Chris Broadwater said, “I agree with everything the opponents of SAVE say about the bill, except for one thing: I’m not willing to let a philosophical stand destroy my home university (Southeastern Louisiana) or the others.”

Norquist’s blessing of Jindal’s budget may help the governor’s bid for the presidency. But Louisiana legislators seeking re-election have been pilloried on the campaign trail.

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, has been “certified” as a liberal (spelled out in blood red, all caps on an opponent’s mailer) for supporting the revenue package that funded higher education.

“What SAVE did is it saved this university,” LSU President F. King Alexander said while standing under the West Laville Hall portico near Harmon.

Alexander said he had been looking at cutting 40 percent of LSU’s budget before the revenue package came along. And SAVE was the sugar that helped that medicine go down.

Waving to parents and students toting boxes into dorm rooms, Alexander added, “I would have had to tell them that the classes they had already signed up for in March and April were no longer available.”

While Alexander couldn’t recall a single parent asking about SAVE, the gimmick caught the attention of higher education leaders around the country. They’ve been phoning, asking just what this SAVE thing is all about, he said.

“I can talk about it, but I can’t explain it,” Alexander said, looking away and chuckling at the memory.

“They say ‘You guys sure do things differently down there.’ ”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@ theadvocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB.

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