Education Money at Risk
As the 2009 legislative session passed its midway mark, the state's $1.3 billion shortfall remained a major focus. In particular, education officials are working overtime to frame their argument on House Bill 1, the state's operating budget. The money bill has already passed the House and is now being reviewed by the Senate Finance Committee. The panel met in a rare Saturday meeting on May 23 and heard testimony from corporate heavies Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard and Lamar Advertising COO Sean Reilly. Both men encouraged lawmakers to take whatever steps necessary to save higher education from more than $219 million in cuts. Last month, Bernhard put his money where his mouth was when he returned $13.5 million in economic development funds to the state with the suggestion that it be used to help plug gaps in higher ed.
Education officials contend lawmakers made a bad decision — one of many — by not assigning the refund to general education expenses. Instead, $7.3 million was directed to dual enrollment programs and $6.2 million was put into library acquisitions. University of Louisiana System President Randy Moffett adds that recent efforts by the House to earmark $50 million for higher education also may not be available from its projected source, the tax amnesty program. Moreover, the monies generated from the 5 percent tuition increase approved by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee will only address $13 million in unfunded, mandated costs, which are in addition to the recommended budget cuts approved by GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal. In short, the changes offered up to assist higher ed so far are mostly window dressing. "We're still looking at a drastic budget cut to our universities," Moffett says.
As the session enters the home stretch (lawmakers must adjourn by June 25), Moffett says students are beginning to notice the cuts. So far, only a few student protests have been staged at the state Capitol, but legislators expect the chanting to grow louder in June. "It is very important, first and foremost, to address the budget cut issue," says Hannah Livingston, student government president at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. "If these budget cuts become reality, it will set our universities back quite a few years and suspend growth and improvement. I hope with proactive efforts, we never encounter a situation like we are currently facing." The UL System is the only higher education system in Louisiana with a board-recognized student council. — Jeremy Alford
Fatalities Underscore Boater Safety Bills
Even as record budget cuts were coming down and before recent water-related tragedies, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' chief lobbyist was focusing on boating safety. When asked early in the session which topic tops his policy list, Lt. Col. Jeff Mayne spoke about a lack of boater education and life vests as well as alcohol abuse. Over the past four years, these elements and others have caused 124 fatalities on Louisiana's waterways. Today, the Bayou State has the unfortunate distinction of ranking fifth nationally in boating-related deaths, despite ranking 15th in registered watercraft.
Mayne has singled out House Bill 636 by Rep. Nickie Monica, R-LaPlace, as a step in the right direction. It's a far-reaching measure with several moving pieces, but it has two important components that target youngsters. It would raise the age required to wear life preservers from 12 to 16 and roll back the birth date for required boater safety classes from Jan. 1, 1988, to Jan. 1, 1984. The bill's central feature would ensure that alcohol-related arrests from the road carry over onto Louisiana's rivers and lakes. "We want to make sure if somebody has a DWI conviction and has a suspended license that they're not out there operating watercraft on our state waterways," Mayne says.
The House already approved Monica's legislation and it is now pending debate in the Senate — an exchange that will certainly include a recap of the recent string of accidents and fatalities in south Louisiana. During the Memorial Day holiday, two women were ejected from a boat and injured during a trip on Blood River in Livingston Parish. The boat actually circled back and ran over the victims in this case. Two weeks ago, five men participating in a fishing tournament in Dulac died when their boat ran under a parked barge. And on May 16, a nighttime boating accident on False River took three lives. — Alford
Despite nasty weather, a group known as the Concerned Citizens Coalition held firm last week on its promise to march from Memorial Stadium in downtown Baton Rouge to the state Capitol for a rally. Why go through all the trouble? The group wanted to protest Gov. Bobby Jindal's refusal of $98 million in federal stimulus money intended for unemployment assistance. President Barack Obama's stimulus package directs about $3.8 billion to Louisiana in aid and tax breaks, but Jindal's plan to turn down the unemployment cash has created a firestorm. Members of the CCC, which consists of charitable groups such as the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations and community-based organizations such as the NAACP, argue that Louisiana needs the cash as it faces a $1.3 billion shortfall. "President Obama's federal economic stimulus package represents an opportunity for investing in our people and our infrastructure in new and different ways to help break the cycle of poverty and inequality once and for all," says Ernest Johnson, president of the Louisiana NAACP and lead CCC organizer. Jindal says the stimulus dollars come with strings attached that would require the state to change its laws and possibly hike certain taxes. The state's most influential business lobbies are backing the governor. In other parts of the nation, Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mark Sanford of South Carolina have also suggested passing on their states' shares. — Alford