Two higher education reform bills failed to pass yesterday in the Louisiana Legislature. While one appears to be a goner, passage of the other at least ameliorates the consequences of that to some degree.
State Rep. Thomas Carmody’s HB 87 would have removed the requirement that the Legislature must approve of all tuition and fee increases by two-thirds majorities. Louisiana is the only state that has such a requirement, where the only exception to it is if institutions achieve stated goals approved by the Board of Regents they may raise these up to 10 percent for the next year. It needed a two-thirds vote to proceed as it required amending the Constitution to remove the additional burden on tuition increases.
But it drew support of only a little more than half of those present and voting, and not even half of the seated membership. Mostly Republicans voted for it and most Democrats against, with two interesting variations. Several black Democrats from the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas voted for it, possibly to assist the Southern University System schools in these communities. Several Republicans voted against it, almost all aligned with if not more vocal members of the Louisiana Budget Reform Campaign, perhaps as a tactic to enable better crisis creation; by closing off this avenue of higher education revenue, it might magnify the deleterious effects of a fiscal structure that makes higher education funding especially vulnerable, increasing the appeal of their reform agenda.
Some opponents argued vacuously about how this would allow tuition to go too “high” and thereby decrease access to higher education. But this view displays ignorance about the relative bargain Louisiana tuition always has been, still among the lowest of all states and which pays a relatively smaller portion of total higher education. In 2009-10 (the most current year of federal statistics are available), comparing the input of government (directly through state appropriation and indirectly through grants from state and the federal government, which includes loans) and that of tuition and fees, nationally about 37 percent of that total came from the latter. In Louisiana for that year, it was just 27 percent. This year is it budgeted at a much higher proportion, where these are about 47 percent, but other states also have been raising that proportion as well.
This means that Louisiana still probably has tuition and fees pay for a smaller proportion of revenues to fund higher education than most states, and therefore there’s room for tuition to increase. Nor would a potential increase affect materially access. Already, since it permits even decidedly average students to qualify, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars pays for tuition for about a fifth of all students. Additional grant opportunities also exist, where the average Louisiana tuition and fees costs still remain well below the maximum federal award. Student loans remain inexpensive. And besides this, asking students to take up a greater share of their educations gives them a greater sense of purpose that should increase their performance levels.
Had all Republicans and black Democrats been present and voted for the bill, it would have cleared the needed margin by several votes. The reality is passage looks impossible for this session. But another measure might salvage helpful reform for higher education fiscal matters in spite of this result.
SB 117 by state Sen. Conrad Appel would create a commission to study how to link better funding and performance, this body being comprised of higher education officials, faculty members, members outside of higher education, and a union representative. It is linked to SB 118 by Appel, which then would have the Board of Regents and university systems follow the formula created by commission, although the Legislature would not have to do the same in the way it actually subsequently appropriated.
The bill specifies that the formula would take an outcome-based approach, be instituted, and reviewed periodically for alterations by the Regents. It is considered a way to more closely tie funding to performance than the current legislation that ties it only to the tuition increases, and hopefully could produce a formula that decreases potential gamesmanship.
After easily passing the Senate, with opposition only from Democrats where most black Democrats voted against it, without any debate the vote came in the House. It got 52 in favor and 42 against, but because one half of the seated membership of 105 must vote to pass, it fell one vote short. Again, mostly Republicans voted for and Democrats against, but this time fewer of the hardcore budget “hawks” on the GOP side voted against and only one black Democrat voted in favor. Afterwards in essence the bill was put into stasis for the time being and SB 118 not even brought up for a vote as a result.
But as there were 11 absentees for the vote, bill handler in the House state Rep. Steve Carter should try again, and SB 118 should be close to passage as well given that its Senate vote actually got state Sen. Greg Tarver to switch from his opposition to SB 117 with the remainder of votes being the same between the two. There’s nothing to lose with trying to come up with a formula that validly links performance to outcomes that the Legislature essentially may use optionally, and much to gain by making sure there is increased accountability and incentives for efficiency in delivering higher education.
These bills’ passages could cushion the blow from the failure of the loosening of tuition control. It could create a system where, with good performance, reception of state money by higher education actually could increase relative absence of a formula and it would provide some protection against budget reductions if the Legislature chooses to lock itself into the formula in a budget year. Absentees from the vote should be on hand for a possible future vote and opponents of this attempt at efficiency and accountability should reconsider this at the next opportunity.