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Lombardi's argument disappoints intellectually, politically

Recently I heard my new boss of bosses Louisiana State University President John Lombardi give the commencement speech at LSUS and was pretty good as far as those things go -- brief, to the point, and actually of some use to a graduate. If only he had brought comparable ability to his criticism of the idea of utilizing transportation-related revenues to fund only transportation-building expenses – both in the exposition of his argument and in its political consequences.

The idea initially broached previous to last year’s legislative session was projected to shift somewhere between $300-350 million from the state’s general fund (which represented about $8 billion in revenues this past budget year) to transportation needs – about the rate of one year growth of the general fund. Because of higher gas prices, the most recent estimate puts the amount at over $450 million.

Lombardi is perturbed at this idea of dedication of funds, which if accomplished would eat away at the $14 billion backlog in transportation needs in about 30 years, because he thinks it would take away funds from higher education. He notes that discretionary spending from the general fund (almost half of it) would bear all of the “reduction” and with education as a whole making up about half of that, higher education would lose a significant portion of funding.

Of course, he makes a telling assumption here – that necessarily all of the diverted money, pumped up by high oil prices, necessarily must be spent on the same items and in the same proportion as they have been in the past. In other words, Lombardi is unwilling to take a fresh look at the real needs and priorities of this state and maybe conclude not all of this money need go to these items. He just simplistically wants higher education’s “cut” without making real effort to determine actual priorities.

He also mistakenly makes a zero-sum game of it all. Lombardi seems to think rigidly that cuts cannot be made in other parts of discretionary general fund spending and/or in low priority areas. Former university system president and current Gov. Bobby Jindal set him right when, told of Lombardi’s complaint, said “My bottom line is you don’t have to choose between good schools and good roads. I think it’s a false choice.”

Jindal grasps that there are many areas of cost savings in Louisiana government regarding items in and out of the general fund; just to name some courtesy of decisions made last session, by redacting such foolish choices as the state giving income tax “refunds” to people who don’t pay any income taxes, funding redundant positions in an already-bloated state bureaucracy, and then giving these vacant positions raises. But there are two specific items under his purview that Lombardi himself could support that together would save money for the state that could make up, in whole or part, a “shortfall” with higher priority being given to roads.

First, in recent years attempts have been made to reduce the burgeoning unfunded accrued liabilities owed present and future state employee retirees the size of which almost equals the road maintenance backlog total. Proposals to reduce the size of the problem, among others things, have been made to cut back for future hires the current extremely generous benefits to just be generous, but this has been opposed by, among others, university systems. We haven’t heard a peep out of Lombardi supporting these measures to rein in these costs.

Second, the LSU system has fought tooth-and-nail to prevent meaningful reform of indigent health care, from the current money-goes-to-the-institution to a money-follows-the-person system that would provide better quality care for more people ultimately at reduced cost – because LSU runs the charity hospitals in the state and prefers the additional resources and prestige that comes from this arrangement. We have heard from Lombardi on this one – essentially defending the wasteful current system (and in such an uninformed way that he denies the empirically demonstrated fact that outcomes in the charity hospitals are worse and performed less efficiently).

(And there's another option -- for the Baton Rouge campus as recently suggested, tuition could be raised with the Legislature's approval. But this also would cost taxpayers more money since a good portion of LSU students' tuition already is being paid for by the TOPS program.)

If this does not make Lombardi a hypocrite in his opposition of the transportation plan, it does suggest him to be a turf-protecting, rigid bureaucrat who lacks the creativity and critical thinking necessary to provide inspired leadership for the state’s flagship university system. And perhaps not very politically astute, either – Jindal already has indicated he intends to push a form of the roads plan and to alter the underachieving indigent health care system in the state, so Lombardi is doing the LSU system no favors by bucking the wishes of the state’s incoming top official.

It may be that Lombardi is being forced by his employers, the LSU Board of Supervisors, into these kinds of statements, but to go along with such enthusiasm to this prodding, if that what it is, is short-sighted. As governor, Jindal soon will start appointing supervisors not likely to be such fanatical defenders of the established order, and, if Lombardi now is acting only as a mouthpiece for the Board, he would have to pirouette on these issues in order to become a yes-man to the new board.

Either way, it’s not what we hoped for when Lombardi ascended to the job a few months back, and it's not going to help his standing with Jindal. He's already apparently engineered the departure of LSU Chancellor Sean O'Keefe (again, probably pushed by the Board) but tangling with Jindal is another matter. Lombardi got a curveball thrown to him by Jindal when a state hiring freeze was put into place: Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis likely would lift such an order for faculty hiring but justification has to be made so now Lombardi will have to coordinate that effort in the LSU system which as an ancillary effect will reduce the potential for Lombardi using resources to bucking Jindal.

I know the opinions expressed in this column (which obviously don’t reflect those of LSUS or the LSU System) are going to deliver a few more black marks from some of my academic superiors into my already heavily-stained personnel file, but from the politicians that matter Lombardi may be picking up even more of them.


Anonymous said...

Lombardi is doing the best he can to lure Condoleezza Rice to be the new Chancellor. Remember she is from Alabama and was the Provost at Stanford prior to joining the Bush administration. Its a great opportunity for the University... Lombardi crazy? Crazy like a fox....

Anonymous said...

Hey Doc....what's a few "stains"? At least they don't kick your door in and drag you away! Here in La. they just pull you aside in the hall and tell you on the "QT" to start looking for a new job i.e. O'Keefe....just avoid halls and you'll be okay!!!HA!

Keep telling it like it is....