Without question the major issue facing the governor and lawmakers this year was how to balance the budget and distribute more than $1 billion in cuts to state agencies. CABL was particularly concerned about the $219 million cut to higher education proposed in the governor’s executive budget. CABL supported the idea put forward by the Senate to delay a state income tax cut for taxpayers who itemize on their returns and use the state’s “rainy day” fund over a three-year period. That didn’t happen.

Nonetheless, we are pleased that significant funding was restored to higher education. CABL called for lawmakers to reduce the originally proposed 15% budget cut by half to about 7.5%. The compromise restoration of $100 million to higher education amounted to a cut of slightly more than 8%, and we believe that is a major improvement over the reductions suggested in the executive budget and those proposed by the House of Representatives.

We are concerned, however, about the way in which the cuts were restored, using only one-time funds that will place higher education in the same situation next year and facing even larger cuts the year after when federal stimulus dollars disappear. CABL believes the three-year funding bridge proposed by the Senate would have offered a more fiscally prudent alternative and given higher education more time to plan for a strategic restructuring of post-secondary education based on the state’s future education and training needs and priorities.

Though the restoration of funding for higher education was encouraging overall, the level of cuts that many seemed to find acceptable for colleges and universities was troubling. So were several other things in the education arena:

· Efforts to enact meaningful school board reform were stymied early in the process, though it has become abundantly clear that there is a disconnect between strong education policies and enhanced funding at the state level and the inability to improve student performance in many local areas.

· The Legislature overwhelmingly passed well-intended legislation to provide more career opportunities for high school students. While we applaud the intent, we are dismayed that the legislation weakens our school accountability standards and could trap some students in a diploma path that actually offers them fewer options. We urge the governor to veto this legislation and try again next year.

· For the first time ever the Legislature voted to take a single school out of the state’s school accountability system, which we fear will only open the door to other attempts in the future. While there may be some issues specific to this school, the Legislature should never take on the role of removing individual schools from our school accountability system.

· Lawmakers failed to pass a constitutional amendment which would have put Louisiana in line with virtually every other state by allowing higher education management boards to set tuition or fee rates rather than the Legislature. The current system has kept tuition rates low, but created an imbalance that makes colleges even more dependent on state funding.

· Lawmakers failed to pass another constitutional amendment that would have given them more flexibility to make slightly larger budget cuts into certain dedicated funds to offset the deep cuts in higher education and health care.

To be sure there were some positives this session. Lawmakers and the governor will still get a little more flexibility to cut dedicated budgets by allowing them to make small cuts in multiple years. There will also be more transparency in how certain dedicated funds are spent at the state level and how state education dollars are spent locally. And a variety of tax credits were approved or extended that will provide incentives for the entertainment industry, green energy, and venture capital for start-up companies.

Still, outside of the budget, there wasn’t a lot of really substantive legislation passed this session. Perhaps, in years when serious fiscal issues dominate, that might be appropriate. But as we emerge from this legislative session, CABL has two messages to lawmakers.

First, don’t retreat from reform. We must preserve the strong reform progress we have made over the years, particularly in education. We must keep our standards high and continue to build on the many solid reform policies we have in place.

Second, focus on the future – both short-term and long-term. In the short-term we clearly have more budget cuts to make. But we must make them with our eyes clearly focused on the long-term. We must identify our state’s real priorities, the things that absolutely must still be there – intact – when the major budget cuts are over in a few years and we must preserve them to the degree possible.

The budget issues of the next few years will, in many ways, define our future and test our state’s leadership. Everything state government funds is not of equal importance. That’s something we simply have to recognize. But with that, we must also have the vision to see where we want Louisiana to be as we head into the second decade of the 21st century and ask, as our mantra, are we doing what we need to do to get us there?

 

 


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