The overall theme evident in this year’s regular session of the Louisiana Legislature, jerry-rigging the faulty fiscal system rather than changing it, has trickled down to the budgetary subset of higher education. If it’s election-year politics and time constraints in action, then relief may come as early as next year – if it’s not sabotaged this year.
Dealing with the budget, so far legislators have shown a marked preference for accepting agency spending demands and then seeking revenues to match, rather than taking the more sensible approach of systemic restructuring focusing on efficiency of spending tax dollars. No category has reflected this approach more faithfully than higher education, where the path of least resistance to lawmakers but of most injury to the citizenry, thoughtless tax increases, has become almost reflexive even among even some Republicans who insist they are conservatives that profess belief in right-sizing government – apparently not just right now nor right here.
In part this instinct has emerged because of elections scheduled this fall. Many politicians who claim to be principled really have feet of clay, whose core beliefs are inherently weak and thus rather than lead and persuade voters of the rectitude of these instead treat principles they ran on as flags of convenience, lowered out of fear of vocal special interests amplified in a hostile media environment. From a reformer’s perspective, the good news is these spineless posers, when the winds change and carry danger of losing their offices (if they manage reelection despite their tax-friendly attitudes), will rediscover their courage and raise their flags to catch this breeze of fiscal responsibility, at least until the next time courage is needed.
But it will be a long process the benefits of which will not come to fruition and become voluminous until years from now. Immediate savings that require a lot of heavy lifting in policy changes are too few to help solve a difficult budget situation – magnified when the policy-makers are part-timers who meet to decide for just one-eighth of the year. In these instances, politicians instinctively gravitate towards stopgap measures unless leadership impels them towards the more sensible long-term solutions.
Hopefully, that impetus is on the way. One persistent legislative voice for spending reform in higher education whose words on this have been washed away this year by the general tax-hiking flood and likely will return for another term is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee Conrad Appel. The three announced Republican candidates for governor also appear open to providing such direction. They have much on the side of spending reform.
It’s not that Louisiana spends too little public money on higher education – among the states and the District of Columbia it ranked 28th in such per capita such spending in 2014, appropriate to the state’s ranking 30th in personal per capita income, and the budget proposed for fiscal year 2016 would spend about at that level – but that it does so inefficiently, by having an imbalance of senior-to-junior institution students with too many baccalaureate-and-above institutions chasing too few students, taxpayers disproportionately footing the bill with students not paying their fair shares, and institutions not compelled to spend wisely, in some cases because of plentiful bong hits of taxpayer money from the state’s open-ended entitlement program that pays tuition for minimal academic achievement, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
And, if anything, the environment for reform could deteriorate this session. While Appel and fellow Republican Sen. Jack Donahue have a bill out there to rein in TOPS spending to make it more like a genuine scholarship program, another bill aimed at giving institutions the ability to control their own tuition had a poison pill added that would encourage the lowering of admission standards and therefore multiply wasteful spending as schools then would be encouraged to engage in a race to the bottom that would create even more imbalance in enrollment at four-year rather than two-year schools. Worse, Democrat state Rep. Walt Leger’s HB 323 would amend the Constitution to lock in, requiring a supermajority to override, state taxpayers’ present level of subsidization to higher education adding even more rigidity to the budget that has been blamed for the current difficulties in achieving balance in it and therefore promoting tax increases over spending reform.
Let’s hope the ability for schools to set their own tuition does not get subverted by lowering standards and mooted as a method to induce efficiency in both structure and processes of higher education delivery by dedicating roughly another six percent to the 81 percent of state funds already non-discretionary. If these things do happen, then Louisiana may be stuck permanently with an underperforming, inefficient system bleeding taxpayers needlessly beyond any reform hopes of the future.