Editorial: Lawmakers need to find their voice and courage

A projected $380 million in budget cuts to Louisiana higher education next year may finish off the job that our elected and appointed state officials started seven years ago. Our system of state universities and community colleges may finally become battered beyond effectiveness.

The Jindal administration must accept its share of blame for what has happened to higher education on his watch, for many of the budget choices over the past seven years have initiated with his office. But the Louisiana Legislature, too, has stood by passively and allowed Gov. Jindal’s budget choices to take effect.

Lawmakers are elected as part of an independent branch of government that has the responsibility to create budgets and the power to override the governor’s veto. Instead, lawmakers have become the governor’s meek budget enablers, allowing him to slash higher education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars over his two terms.


State higher education projected to be slashed by $300M

The cuts, if enacted, would “gut our universities and community colleges like a fish,” State Treasurer John N. Kennedy said Friday. “We don’t have to waterboard these schools.” No, we don’t. And our elected leaders ought to keep that from happening.

Kennedy has urged the state to slash consultants’ expenses by 10 percent, which would help solve part of the problem. But the greater problem is not money, but how the state spends it.

Consider that state budgets have grown from $12 billion under former Gov. Mike Foster to $19 billion under Gov. Kathleen Blanco to $25 billion under Gov. Jindal. The state has money, yet it is one of only a handful of states choosing to cut higher education spending — and by a greater percentage than any other state, Kennedy said.

In truth, many Louisianians have had a hand in undermining the financial stability of our state campuses. As a state, we have built some schools when we should not have. We have kept some schools — proven failures — open when they should have been closed. All that should be reviewed. But if we choose to keep schools open, we should enable them to be successful. This proposed budget would rob them of that chance.

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The Legislature itself should move forward with its own plans for Louisiana higher education. Some lawmakers who have routinely rubber-stamped budgets with draconian cuts to higher education are apparently awakening to the reality that campuses in their districts are now on the brink of disaster. They are late to speak up, but better late than never.

More important than their words, though, are their actions. Our lawmakers ought to meet in special session before the April 13 legislative session begins or should hold hearings around the state to make plans for higher education and form strategies to protect our campuses. Start today.

Our higher education officials have a role, too. They should not couch their language in generalities but should speak candidly about the budget problems and be specific. If three University of Louisiana System institutions are on the brink of closing, tell us which ones they are and what they need to be saved. If programs will be closed, tell us which ones.

Lawmakers should draw up and review the entire state budget — line by line, item by item — and establish priorities. Each item should be measured for its importance: If higher education is more important than a specific budget item, then that budget item should tumble down the list of priorities.

Most importantly, the Legislature needs to find its own voice, its own sense of identity. Our system of checks and balances morally commands lawmakers, as a body, to check the governor’s excesses and not kowtow to his annual budget whims and easy choices. If the governor threatens a veto, let him state his case — and override him, if necessary.

It’s time for lawmakers, our elected leaders, the people to whom we have entrusted our government and our tax dollars, to raise hell — and not just a little. Or catch hell at election time, if they don’t.