KENNEDY: Higher Education Can And Must Be Saved

If you look long enough at the cuts to our higher education budget, you begin to feel like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down that deep rabbit hole. You don’t know when the nightmare is going to end.

A report by Moody’s Investors Services told the nation what we in Louisiana already knew. Our public colleges and universities have suffered deeper budget cuts than anywhere else in the U.S. over the past five years.

Charts by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show we’re digging ourselves deeper and deeper into a hole.

In 2013, Louisiana was second to New Mexico in the negative change to state spending per student with inflation adjusted. Now Louisiana stands first, spending $5,004 less per student. Our neighbor to the east, Mississippi, is spending $2,524 less per student. Texas has managed to spend only $1,996 less per student.

Moody’s warned that Louisiana’s colleges are ill-equipped to face additional credit stress. In simpler terms, Moody’s is warning that it will slash the credit ratings of our colleges and universities unless we clean up our budget mess. Our higher education system doesn’t need a lower credit rating on top of the budget cuts. A lower credit rating would make it more expensive to borrow money when it’s time to build new dormitories or fix the chemistry lab.

Thus far, we’ve settled on raising tuition as the solution to our problems. As Alice found when she ate the “Eat Me” cake and outgrew the room, bigger isn’t always better, especially when it means taking a bigger chunk out of our families’ household income to put kids through college. That’s a tax increase, even if you don’t call it one.

So let’s stop taking more and more money out of our taxpayers’ pocketbooks. Let’s not even have a discussion about new tax increases. We don’t need to raise taxes.

The state budget under Governor Mike Foster was $12 billion. Now it’s $25 billion. Unless we’re giving every state worker a $120,000 LS Lexus Hybrid to tool around the state in, we have enough money to meet our needs. All we need to do is stop foolish spending.

A report by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana estimated we could save $300 for every Medicaid patient who goes to a doctor’s office or a clinic instead of the emergency room. Why is that significant? Medicaid and uninsured patients in Louisiana make 900,000 visits to the emergency room each year for routine care. Get a handle on that problem, and the savings are in the hundreds of millions.

Another problem – and it’s one I’ve talked about so much that even I’m getting a little tired of punching the alarm button – is the number of consultants on the government payroll. We have 19,000 consultants. Would you believe we’ve paid someone to teach people how to use Facebook?

Let me tell you about Edythe Kirchmaier. Teddy Roosevelt was president when she was born. She knitted care packages for World War I soldiers. Now age 107, she recently became Facebook’s oldest registered user. And she did it without the help of a paid consultant. You can follow her on Facebook. If you’re unsure how, just ask Edythe to teach you.

The Louisiana Legislature will convene in April to debate the state budget in earnest. Legislators will have to figure out how to fill a $1.6 billion budget hole. I hope they don’t continue to devastate higher education with cuts. I hope they don’t hire more consultants. I hope they settle on sensible solutions that get us back into credit rating agencies’ good graces and set the state on a smooth course for the future.



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