These are tough times for Louisiana government. Everyone knew the post-Katrina boom would end in a few years, but no one foresaw the spigot closing at the onset of a worldwide recession. The result has been a one-two punch that hit state coffers like a shot to the solar plexus. The current fiscal year saw a drop in total revenues of at least $1 billion, and the next two fiscal years portend similar shortfalls.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who campaigned as a tough-minded fiscal conservative, has essentially punted on this one, telling a pair of cost-cutting commissions to "be bold." The governor should heed his own admonition. Hiding behind "study committees" is hardly the picture Jindal painted of himself during his 2007 campaign, when it was easy to talk tough on the budget.
Fortunately, one state official has shown the kind of moxie that times such as these demand. State Treasurer John Kennedy, a member of the Commission on Streamlining Government, is pushing an old idea whose time has come: merging Louisiana's three university systems and their separate governing boards into one system governed by one board. "We need a system that looks like somebody designed it on purpose," Kennedy says.
Louisiana's Balkanized system of multiple higher ed systems — each with its own governing board — is educationally dysfunctional and fiscally indefensible. A holdover from the days of racial segregation, the separate university systems were cemented into the 1974 constitution when convention delegates placed the constitution on the ballot for voter approval alongside two "options" for higher education governance: a single board for all colleges and universities; and a multi-tiered system in which one board (the Board of Regents) ostensibly would function as the "super board" overseeing other boards. Voters, accustomed to separate boards for the LSU system, the Southern system, other state colleges and universities, and the vocational-technical schools, opted to keep the separate systems in place. The subsequent settlement of a longstanding desegregation lawsuit used the fragmented system as a template, making reform even more difficult. All along, the decisions to maintain the separate systems have been driven by politics, not smart fiscal policy. Now, after decades on the back burner, it's time to put higher ed consolidation front and center.
Kennedy's idea faces an uphill battle, even with the streamlining commission. Commission chair Jack Donahue, a state senator from Mandeville, ruled the idea out of order at a meeting last week. Donahue based his ruling on the fact that the other cost-cutting commission is focused on higher education, and therefore Kennedy's proposal should come from that panel, not his.
Donahue's ruling was technically sound, but it missed the larger point. The commission charged with reining in the costs of higher education has barely gotten organized — but some of its members already are talking about closing or merging whole institutions. Kennedy's suggestion of merging the systems and then selectively cutting some degree programs to eliminate duplication, while controversial, is actually far more politically palatable than closing or merging entire campuses. Moreover, selectively cutting duplicate degree programs will reward excellence by concentrating the state's limited higher ed funds on its best programs. "I don't think we have too many universities in Louisiana," Kennedy says. "I think we have too many universities that try to do the same thing. ... What we're doing now is watering down the soup."
For too long, Louisiana's separate higher ed systems have been sacred cows. Consolidating them requires amending the state constitution, which is always difficult. Amendments need a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and a majority among voters in a statewide referendum. On the other hand, closing universities will prove even more difficult. "When you eliminate a university, it has implications for employment, economic development and education," Kennedy says. "I think we can accomplish what we need to accomplish by eliminating duplicate boards."
In these uncertain times, this much is certain: The present system can no longer sustain itself. After Hurricane Katrina, in the name of fiscal responsibility, the rest of Louisiana pressed New Orleans to merge its seven assessors into one, to merge its levee board with others in the region, and to merge its separate courts, sheriffs and clerks. New Orleans did all that. Now it's the state's turn.