Jindal’s claim that Louisiana’s higher education budget is ‘slightly higher’

“The total higher education budget, including means of total finance — is actually a little bit, just slightly, higher than when I took office.”

– Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), remarks at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Feb. 9, 2015

Jindal, a presidential hopeful in Washington for an education meeting, met with reporters this week and was immediately confronted with a question about alleged reductions in funding he has made to Louisiana’s higher education budget. Jindal’s budget policies have come under scrutiny since he proposed in his upcoming budget to reduce funding for Louisiana colleges by hundreds of million of dollars. The New York Times, using calculations by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reported Louisiana’s higher education budget “has been slashed by more than just about any other state since 2008.”

Given these reports, “isn’t it a bit ironic for you to be in Washington talking about education, given the way you’ve cut education and spending in Louisiana?” asked Dave Cook, from the Christian Science Monitor.

Jindal first noted that he has not cut K-12 education funding. He then said his higher education budget “is actually a little bit, just slightly, higher than when I took office.”

This caught our attention because it was a drastically different claim than what had been previously reported. Is Jindal correct that Louisiana’s total higher education budget actually is higher now than it was when he took office in 2008?
The Facts

There are a lot of wonky budget components at play here, specific to changes in funding mechanisms in Louisiana. What is important to keep in mind is that budget numbers can be spun in myriad ways. That is what happened here. Jindal’s statement is far from correct, based on the actual state budget documents.

According to the budget, higher education funding decreased by $279 million since Jindal took office. That is a straight calculation, and does not reflect two changes that have taken place since 2008. First, the state’s public hospital system, which was partially funded through the state higher education budget, was privatized. Second, the state agency that administers tuition assistance and scholarship programs was wrapped into the higher education budget. That means there is no accurate comparison between the fiscal 2008 budget and the fiscal 2015 budget to check out Jindal’s claims. But it can be done, and each scenario looks different.

Below are four ways the budget can be calculated, depending on which factor is weighed:

Option 1: Only calculate the effect of removing the hospital funding portion. In the past, the higher education budget included money to run the public hospital system. Since the hospital system is now privatized, that funding is no longer needed. That decreases the overall budget by $590 million. This is only a part of the calculation.
Option 2: Only consider the impact of the added funding for the state agency that pays for scholarships and tuition assistance. That increases the budget by $202 million. But again, this is only a part of the calculation.
Option 3: Take out both of the hospital and agency funding, and look at how the rest of the higher education budget changed otherwise. That decreases the budget by $142 million. While tuition assistance is a state expense incurred to help the student, policy and budget analysts say this is an apples-to-apples comparison of changes in higher education funding.
Option 4, which is the basis of Jindal’s statement: Add the state agency funding, and only add portions of the hospital system that relate to higher education, such as the medical school. This results in an increase of $2 million, according to Jindal’s office. (Jindal’s office also noted a $40 million fund that he signed into law in 2014, which allows schools to compete for additional funding.)

Jindal’s spokesman, Mike Reed, said the tuition assistance funding should “absolutely” be included in the budget calculation (i.e., option 4), as it helps students who otherwise may not have been able to afford college. He noted that the program currently helps 47,000 Louisiana students. For context, there were 221,324 students enrolled at Louisiana colleges or universities in fall 2013, according to the state Board of Regents.

One constant that remains regardless of how the numbers are spun is that the state’s general fund has been cut significantly since Jindal took office. That means since the time Jindal became the state’s top executive, Louisiana has dedicated somewhere between 32 and 48 percent less of its state general fund dollars to its colleges and universities, according to the Louisiana House of Representatives’ Fiscal Division (the nonpartisan research arm of the House). Even according to the calculations Jindal’s staff provided The Fact Checker, the state general fund was cut by 39 percent. At the same time, tuition, fees and self-generated revenues for the schools have increased, and they have made up for the majority of the loss in state general fund money.

The Fiscal Division’s analysis shows tuition and fees increased by 95 percent since Jindal became governor.

“What we’ve seen happen in Louisiana the last few years is the amount of money appropriated directly to the universities has gone down while the tuition has gone up,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonpartisan public policy research agency. “It’s just a question of philosophy — how you want to finance your schools.”
The Pinocchio Test

As shown above, there are numerous ways to calculate the overall higher education budget. Depending on how the numbers are manipulated, Louisiana’s higher education budget is anywhere between $2 million higher or $590 million lower than it was when Jindal took office. But even by using Jindal’s optimistic figures, it is misleading to say that the total higher education budget increased while he was governor. That may be correct using his specific calculation, but it is an inaccurate portrayal.

Given the financing changes that have taken place since 2008, the fair assessment would be how the state has spent its own discretionary money from its general fund. There is no question that Jindal has cut state funding appropriated for its colleges and universities. The ways that Jindal’s calculation makes up for the cuts are either through student financial assistance or through significantly increased tuition and fees that students are paying to help keep the schools running. Yet the public would not know that without digging into the numbers that are or are not included in state budget documents.

We award Jindal Three Pinocchios for his claim.