Merger Talk Arouses Critics

Gov. Bobby Jindal got a quick taste of what’s ahead as he and the Legislature try to plug a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget for the next fiscal year. His suggestion that the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans might be merged brought a storm of criticism from Southern defenders.

State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, who happens to be a SUNO employee, told The Advocate of Baton Rouge he was “blindsided” by Jindal’s suggestion. He called it a “very inappropriate” announcement.

State Rep. Charmaine Staies, D-New Orleans, another SUNO graduate, talked about the Southern System being the target of “racially motivated” attacks for years.

The governor believes a merged university could become part of the University of Louisiana System that manages McNeese State University and seven other higher education institutions.

UNO is currently in the LSU System, and SUNO is part of the Southern System.

Badon is probably right about a merger not being a big money saver, but the graduation track record of both universities leaves a lot to be desired.

UNO graduates 21 percent of its students in six years. However, SUNO only graduates 5 percent of its students.

Merger unlikely

Something has to change, but this proposal probably won’t get too far. A merger would require a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature.

Tony Clayton of Port Allen, a past chairman of the Southern System board, said Jindal is only asking for a study. Unfortunately, too many red flags are already flying.

“The battle is on,” Badon said as other Southern defenders joined the cause.

Maybe so, but to call this a racial move is simply a convenient excuse that rings hollow.

Meanwhile, Jindal and the Legislature don’t seem to be getting far in agreeing how they will trim that $1.6 billion from the 2011-12 budget.

Tax increases are out of the question because Jindal and the majority of taxpayers are adamantly opposed to higher taxes.

The governor’s suggestion that state prisons, state buildings and surplus property could be sold to trim back the deficit isn’t being well-received.

If that were done, it’s only one-time money and there could be more budget woes in years to come. Besides, the state built a number of new buildings in Baton Rouge to keep from paying high rent to private property owners.

Some past governors were famous for getting the state to rent buildings owned by their friends and supporters. One of the most publicized leases involved a former Sears building in downtown Lake Charles.

Friends of former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards were the beneficiaries of that lease.

Some of Jindal’s cost-savings ideas might work, but they don’t shave much off the shortfall.

Paul Rainwater, the governor’s commissioner of administration, tried to get the Revenue Estimating Conference to raise its revenue forecast last week. Higher tax collections this year are believed to be a sign of better times ahead.

“At a minimum we have some optimism to talk about,” said Greg Albrecht, chief economist for the Legislative Fiscal Office.

The four members of the conference couldn’t agree, so nothing was changed.

“We ought to do the fiscally conservative thing and hold up until we have better data,” said House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers.

Rainwater is talking with confidence, but the details of how the budget will be cut are still in short supply. Jindal has until March 11 to submit his budget proposal to the Legislature, so we won’t know much more until then.

“I don’t see this as a challenge,” Rainwater told members of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. “I see it as an opportunity.”

Anyone who is willing to face the facts will have to admit a combination of early retirements and layoffs is the only way to achieve substantial savings. The payroll is the most expensive item in the budget.

Jindal and Rainwater have both said 6,300 positions have been eliminated since the governor took office in 2008. Rainwater said another 700 jobs are currently being cut.

That is certainly commendable, but far short of the painful reductions that will be necessary.

Some have plan

State Treasurer John Kennedy continues to come up with ways he thinks the budget can be cut without destroying higher education and health care. Kennedy gets a lot of press coverage but little traction among the governor’s forces and state legislators, who say his figures aren’t realistic.

State Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, is one official who knows the reality of what’s ahead and wanted to start the cutbacks in this year’s budget. Unfortunately, the governor and the state Senate decided to use one-time revenue sources to postpone the inevitable.

“We chose to push it down the road and push it down the road,” Fannin told The Advocate. “We truly created that ($1.6 billion) cliff, when we could have had a softer landing.”

Some will remember when the state enjoyed big surpluses not too many years ago. It’s all gone, and the day of reckoning is at hand.

If we survive this time, as we will somehow, we can only wonder whether state officials will learn anything from the unpleasant experience that appears to lie ahead.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press (where this piece originally appeared), has covered people and politics for more than four decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or mailto:[email protected].

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