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Cowardly lawmakers perpetuate wasteful college spending

Even with a historical culture rife with actions indicative of paper tigers, feet of clay, and absence of spines, the 2011 Louisiana Legislature continues to set new lows in its gutless avoidance of responsibility and implying blame to anybody but themselves for its members’ stupid policy choices.

One might have thought this asininity had reached its zenith in the House with its adoption of HR 27, which created a broadly-defined classification of budgeted dollars called “one-time money” that would require a two-thirds majority to approve. By doing so, it allowed members to divert attention away from the major flaw in the state’s fiscal structure – legislators’ ubiquitous habit of dedicating funds without any thought of setting priorities and making choices that created so much “one-time money” that never would be used for its dedicated purposes in the first place – that they manufactured and refused to fix so that they could continue to use that as a crutch to avoid making responsible decisions. That way, they could posture themselves as faux “fiscal conservatives” through treatment of the symptom rather than the disease.

But now the House, no doubt silently cheered on by the Senate that can use its counterpart’s action as cover, is blazing a new trail in irresponsibility in maintaining a fiscal structure to higher education guaranteed to waste taxpayers’ money.
Yesterday’s rebuke of state Rep. Frank Hoffman’s HB 97, which would allowed a small increase in operational fees for universities, caused state Rep. Hollis Downs to abandon the gist of another bill, HB 448, which would have allowed universities to charge tuition beyond 12 semester hours per regular semester. Downs now plans to modify radically that bill, likely to have schools force students to drop classes earlier after paying a fee.

No doubt higher education in Louisiana has not been the most efficient spender of funds and that further changes could be made to increase efficiency still more. As previously noted, one could make a coherent argument that higher education needs to show results or make a better case for fee increases before being allowed to raise more money. However, efficiency in use of existing dollars works within the general context established by the Legislature, and it’s a context the Legislature has had plenty of opportunity this session to alter to address exactly complaints about inefficient use of resources in delivery of higher education.

Reviewing identified systemic causes of inefficient resource allocation in Louisiana higher education, and how they’ve been dealt with during this session:

Complaint: too many duplicative governing boards.
Solution: merge into fewer or just one board.
Legislative action to correct this session: watered-down legislation to amend the Constitution to merge to one board remains stalled in the House.

Complaint: too many higher education institutions dilute resources and effectiveness.
Solution: reduce the number at all levels.
Legislative action to correct this session: rather than change the law to make it easier to merge or close campuses by requiring a simple majority rather than two-thirds legislative vote, that bill language is removed, then restored but bottled up; another bill sailing through actually adds one more technical/community college campus.

Complaint: too many underperforming/duplicative institutions.
Solution: close or merge campuses.
Legislative action to correct this session: a bill merging the country’s worst performing campus with a low performer a mile away fails to pass the House.

Complaint: too many marginal students being given taxpayer dollars to attend college where they drop out.
Solution: tighten eligibility and responsibility requirements to earn and use these dollars.
Legislative action to correct this session: raising qualification standards not even considered; incremental measures to induce more responsibility such as requiring some kind of payback for failure to stay in school are defeated.

Complaint: free tuition encourages students to overload on courses, then drop without penalty, causing campuses to hire more staff and use more resources than needed and delays other students from graduating.
Solution: charge tuition for these hours.
Legislative action to correct this session: additional hours tuition charge is abandoned.

The last addresses the retreat by Downs and was the most obvious no-brainer on the list. In essence, it means that, after 12 hours, what Louisiana charges which ranks as 45th in the country terms of per student tuition and fees paid at 15 hours taken becomes ranked 48th and at 18 hours 49th ranked. Yet this still is too high in the minds of too many legislators. And the strategy of slapping a fee on those dropping will do little to curb the wasteful overload practice; consider a typical three hours would cost about $250 with a full refund available usually at least a week into the term, and large partial refunds often available for several weeks thereafter. A charge of $10 or $20 will do almost nothing to discourage the practice.

So many chances to fix problems regarding inefficient delivery of higher education and, with the exception of merging boards still limping along, so many whiffs indicative of the lack of political courage by legislators, particularly in the House. Worse, after all the shouting ceases, lack of political courage will turn to assumption of political cowardice when, inevitably, some legislators will blame higher education for wasteful spending and resulting in the reduction of its resources even more – after already having rejected any change to a system rigged to cause inefficient use of higher education bucks. Once again, it’s the treating of the symptoms rather than the disease.

Of course, the taxpayer is the ultimate loser in the whole sorry scenario – deprived of his taxes being used wisely and a higher education system performing at its best at the expense of political posturing. Meanwhile, legislators’ populist bloviating on this issue drowns out the debates that need to occur – how much should taxpayers subsidize college students and how much responsibility for their educations should students take; how many schools are necessary and where and at what levels of instruction are they needed; what system and methods can provide the greatest return for students and taxpayers for the least cost?

It takes political courage to initiate and sustain these debates to their conclusions. If only we lived in Oz, courage could be whipped up and force fed to the negligent cowards, who do not own up to much less correct their mistakes, that prowl the Legislature’s chambers. Sadly, we live in Louisiana instead, where too much policy gets made through emotion rather than reason, based upon expedience rather than leadership, and designed to promote image geared for public consumption for special interests over substance that genuinely benefits all.

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