If Any Leges Sign This Pledge, Run Them Right Out Of Office In November

The professors at Louisiana’s public colleges are circulating what they’re selling as a counter to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes which has been put forth as the reason why Louisiana’s budget is so fouled up.

If you’ve been paying attention, ATR president Grover Norquist is, by alternate definitions, a crook and a clown, the single most powerful person in Louisiana and the man responsible for destroying the state’s budget. Frankly, there are some considerable questions to be asked about ATR’s treatment of Louisiana’s refundable inventory tax credit – but the idea that because the state’s governor Bobby Jindal took a pledge not to raise taxes early in his political career and is serious, he says, about not breaking it somehow makes Norquist the black hat in Louisiana politics makes idiots out of people who offer such a simplistic explanation.

Louisiana’s budget problems are far more complex than that, and the people who blame the whole mess on Norquist can’t really claim to have any expertise in solving them.

Particularly when they purport to be the folks who teach the state’s best and brightest and are sold to the public as the best and brightest Louisiana has to offer.

Like, for example, LSU’s faculty senate president Kevin Cope, who is the wannabe Grover Norquist of the faculty lobby.

Louisiana’s brightest academic minds plan to counter Gov. Bobby Jindal’s no new tax pledge to Americans for Tax Reform by presenting their own pledge they will ask lawmakers to sign.

LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope said the pledge to protect higher education will be circulated to all of the state’s faculty senates next week with the hope of gaining united approval.

Cope called Jindal “a traitor” to Louisiana by signing his pledge with the national lobbying group ATR and its leader Grover Norquist, who Cope refers to as “a foreign potentate.”

“We’re going to ask each of the faculty senates to sign on to try to counter this unfortunate outside influence,” Cope said.

It is a nice turn of phrase to call someone a “potentate,” though “Grand Poo-Bah” is far more endearing.

Cope’s pledge, which actually came courtesy of UL-Monroe political science professor and frequent media quote machine Joshua Stockley reads as follows, and a legislator would have to be insane to sign it.

“I, _____, pledge to the residents of Louisiana that: ONE, I will oppose any and all efforts to reduce funding to higher education, and TWO, will refuse to vote for a budget that reduces funding to higher education.

“I believe that funding higher education in Louisiana is a vital investment in the future of our state. I pledge my support to oppose any and all efforts to reduce funding to higher education in order to improve the quality of Louisiana’s higher education system.”

Higher education is getting cut this year, because there is no other way to close a $1.6 billion hole in the state’s budget. That’s just reality. You can’t sign such a pledge and balance the state’s budget as required by Louisiana’s constitution. So that’s one reason why no legislator can sign Stockley’s pledge.

Another reason it’s unsignable is that it lacks clarity. “Higher education” is far too broad. What constitutes higher education? Can none of the state’s community colleges be cut, or do they not count as higher education? What of campuses which are clearly failing and the market is earnestly trying to kill, like Grambling and SUNO? They will require constant increases from Louisiana’s general fund to stay afloat, because they can’t attract students anymore. Failing to supply that lifeline means those schools can’t survive – is it not a cut to recognize that reality and let them go? And what if the general fund is a finite resource, and the increasing money needed to keep Grambling and SUNO afloat would necessitate less money from elsewhere in higher education? Would that not constitute a “cut,” or do the rest of us just have to pony up and pay more to keep the pie growing?

And what constitutes “higher education funding?” Is that solely the general fund expenditures, or does it not include TOPS?

TOPS funding is going up in Jindal’s budget, as state appropriations from the general fund go down. Must both go up each year or else Stockley and Cope’s pledge is violated?

Do Stockley and Cope promise to fight future efforts to squirrel away funding for legislators’ pet projects in dedicated accounts through little-understood constitutional amendments put before a sleepy public? And if so, where have they been while such dedications have gone on for decades to the detriment of their schools? Or do they not particularly bemoan those dedications and are more interested in tax increases to keep their funding going come what may?

We’ve never heard anyone at LSU or any other public college in the state decry those funding dedications. Nobody said last year, for example, that the constitutional amendment dedicating funds for protection of coral reefs was a direct assault on LSU’s funding and to vote for that amendment was to doom LSU to a budget cut. And let’s face it, one reason for the silence is that to fight other public sector entities for priority might expose some unwelcome truths. Because the majority of Louisiana’s colleges have produced shockingly poor graduation rates and terrible academic reputations which for the most part did not improve despite a funding boom from 1995 to 2008. At the same time the initial salaries for graduates of Louisiana’s four-year institutions aren’t even greater than those of the state’s community colleges, which calls into question the value of the degrees those institutions are selling.

That doesn’t particularly apply to LSU, of course, since LSU’s graduation rate isn’t horrible and LSU grads generally earn respectable initial salaries – particularly if those graduates earned degrees in something marketable. But nobody at LSU has ever voiced any concerns we’ve ever heard about bad investments being made at other colleges around the state. When the idiotic idea came up to turn LSU-Alexandria into the state’s 14th public four-year university a decade ago, there was not a peep from anyone at the Baton Rouge campus that it was an unnecessary, wasteful idea that had far less to do with improving education in the state than it did to provide jobs at the bottom end of the profession.

So now that the chips are down and that $1.6 billion budget deficit has to be solved one way or another, we’re not getting the battle for priority but instead a demand for higher taxes, and the scare tactics are out in the way of trying to blackmail the voters into agreeing to have their pockets raided. Consider the efforts of LSU’s president F. King Alexander, who is running around to venues like the Baton Rouge Press Club offering inanities like how LSU won’t be able to field a football team or anything else if its budget gets cut in an effort to scare Louisiana’s rube voters into calling their state legislators and demanding nothing get cut.

It’s gotten very, very old to continuously hear the public sector, when faced with a budget cut, to immediately run to the most high-profile service they’re funded to produce and threaten that as the subject of the cuts. Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who we really like otherwise, offered a good example last week when he said that a minor cut in his budget would make it impossible to hold a presidential primary next year. Every time a local budget shortfall makes cuts a real possibility it’s always cops and firemen who will be laid off and never clock-watching bureaucrats whose job function nobody seems to be able to pin down. And now, Alexander is threatening the rube voters with denying them their LSU football if he has to take a budget cut. This, after his athletic director Joe Alleva announced that a privately-funded nutrition facility for LSU’s athletes wouldn’t be built because of the budget cuts. The word we’re hearing from on campus is that Alleva is serving as Alexander’s mouthpiece where the nutrition center is concerned.

Alexander is also engaging in a level of naked dishonesty about LSU’s budget situation which none of his predecessors have attempted. He’s throwing around numbers like an “82 percent reduction” in the school’s budget, which is a total falsehood. What is true is that the state general fund allocation to LSU might be cut at that level, but the general fund is a far smaller fraction of LSU’s total budget than he’d have you believe. LSU currently gets 13 percent of its budget from the general fund and Alexander says that number would drop to 2.9 percent – but the other 87 percent comes from other sources and none of that is necessarily facing a cut.

In fact, Jindal’s budget proposal envisions an increase in the funding for TOPS, the scholarship program that practically every in-state student on LSU’s campus uses to subsidize tuition. TOPS money is state money, so it’s dishonest to cherry-pick the general fund dollars and solely describe the effect of that funding rather than offering the whole picture.

And frankly, Alexander and Cope ought to be happy that the general fund is evaporating as a source of LSU’s finances. History shows that the general fund is an atrocious source of LSU’s support, for two reasons. First, it takes LSU out of a position of competing in the marketplace against the state’s other public universities, where it dominates the competition, and puts it at a very crowded trough to be fed by politicians from all over the state, most of whom have little piggies in or near their own districts who want what LSU has. And second, it puts LSU’s funding at the mercy of the price of crude oil, which has for decades caused immense problems in keeping a stable stream of dollars from the state capitol to the university down the street. Alexander’s demand for general fund money is ideological and he carried it with him from Cal State Long Beach (see an exposition of that here), even though he’s completely out of touch with current trends not just in Louisiana but all over the country.

What he ought to be doing is demanding 100 percent autonomy to set tuition and fees and declaring “there will be no budget cuts at LSU. Either you hold steady what you give us from the general fund or I make it up by charging market rates for tuition and fees and I pack the lecture halls with as many paying customers as I can enroll regardless of how many spots I have.” Whining about the general fund is stupid and counterproductive, and his insistence on it shows he was a poor fit for LSU despite the contentious process which brought him here.

But he won’t do that, and instead he’s put the word out to his people and even his students that everyone in purple and gold is now a political activist who must sign for his or her supper in front of the legislature and the public. You must pay more taxes to solve his budget problem. But don’t ask him for any help if your wallet gets thin.



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