The blockade of revenue measures in the state House of Representatives is not only frustrating to senators across the State Capitol’s main hall but in institutions large and small across the state.
For colleges and universities, it is a dismal repetition of the years when the Legislature failed to balance the budget until the last moment. Because of the way state government is structured — as much a failure of politics as of governmental architecture — health care and higher education are the most readily available places to reduce spending.
Under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, to fund tax cuts for businesses and income taxpayers, the state’s commitment to higher education stumbled badly. The colleges have seen a decade of budget cuts almost every year. Now, a Legislature deadlocked over renewal of a fraction of a penny of the state sales tax has once again put colleges into play as potential cuts.
The prospect of cuts is “both real and potentially devastating,” says Robert W. Levy, chairman of the Board of Regents that oversees higher education.
“It is not an overstatement to say Louisiana’s continued ability to educate its citizenry and train its workforce depends on what happens” in the latest special session, Levy said. “It is that critical.”
Last fiscal year, colleges didn’t face a midyear budget cut, and funding was stable.
We don’t see that as any great success. As Levy pointed out in an open letter to lawmakers, stable funding “actually means holding steady on the nation’s second-highest disinvestment in higher education.”
Louisiana can’t afford to neglect its long-term economic development in this way. Money per student in Louisiana institutions is the lowest in the region, behind Mississippi and Arkansas, and a third less than what Alabama commits to its universities.
As Gov. John Bel Edwards often says, it’s bad enough if we lose to Alabama on the ball fields, but it matters more that we lose to them in the competition for the brightest students with the brightest prospects for economic and social contributions in not years but decades ahead.
We’re losing recruits that hurt our team for many years to come. And our legislators, particularly in the increasingly partisan House, deadlock over a sales tax renewal; the fight most recently was over 17 cents of sales tax for a $100 purchase. It’s that petty, but when it causes a needless cut to colleges, we think legislators ought to wonder why it is seemingly impossible to prioritize.
A former district attorney in Lincoln Parish as well as a longtime member of the Regents board, Levy is politically knowledgeable. “We are not asking for more funding, only stable funding,” he said, “resources that will allow our institutions to fulfill their missions and provide students the quality education they deserve.”
Louisiana’s colleges and universities are economic drivers of the future. Shortchanging them is shortsighted.