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Jindal’s ‘tuition stuff a no-go,’ La. speaker says in budget critique

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Written by: Mike Hasten
mhasten@gannett.com 

 

BATON ROUGE — Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to raise revenue to fill holes in the 2011-12 budget could have serious problems getting through the House of Representatives.

Speaker of the House Jim Tucker and House members indicate they would rather cut the budget than increase tuition on college students, sell state prisons or privatize a state employee insurance program.

The governor’s contention is that Louisiana’s low tuition is holding campuses back.

“The tuition stuff is pretty much a no-go,” Tucker said in a meeting with reporters.

Higher education institutions have received tuition increases totaling up to 20 percent in the past three years, he said, and have the ability under the GRAD Act passed last year to increase tuition to the average charged by their peer institutions in Southern states if they meet conditions set in the act.

“A tuition increase is not popular in the House,” the speaker said. “It’s probably not going to happen. The Legislature wants to see what we’ve gotten for tuition increases so far.”

“I’m concerned about raising tuition at a critical time,” said Rep. Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport. “We’ve got a number of kids who are not on TOPS,” the state-funded scholarship program that covers tuition and some fees for students who qualify for the merit-based program, he said. “It has nothing to do with black and white. It’s economics. Many don’t come from well-to-do families” who could afford higher tuition if their children don’t have TOPS.

Burrell said he’s amazed that Jindal refuses to increase taxes but is pushing increasing costs for college students.

“It’s basically taxing families,” he said. “I don’t believe in lying to the public and changing scenarios. Increasing fees is no more than taxing.”

Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said increasing tuition “is going to be a tough sell in the House.”

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, agrees.

“The governor is trying to balance the budget on the backs of students,” he said. “At the same time he’s increasing tuition, he’s limiting access to the people who can least afford it and need an education the most.”

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Johnson said he also doesn’t understand how having affordable higher education is bad.

“Making it a negative thing baffles my mind,” Johnson said. “The Legislature understands that just as the state is having financial difficulties, our families are, too.”

Rep. Kay Katz, R-Monroe, said, “I think we’ve got to be really careful how we raise tuition. However, our schools have to have the wherewithal to operate. If our universities feel this is a necessity, I’m sure many members will weigh that in making a decision.”

Tucker said the House might go along with averaging tuition among the state’s community colleges to equalize the amount charged at each institution. Currently, he said, tuition is highest at Delta Community College in Monroe, the state’s newest campus.

On the proposal to establish a single board of higher education, Tucker said there is “considerable support in the House. I believe it will come out of committee. I don’t know where it is in the Senate.”

Katz said she definitely supports the idea of a single board. “If what we had was working, it would be different.”

Selling Cenla

 

prisons

The governor also proposed selling three Central Louisiana prisons — in Allen, Avoyelles and Winn parishes — to offset cuts in Medicaid and education, but that proposal also has run into stiff opposition. He announced last week that he would hold off on the legislation until the Revenue Estimating Conference determines whether spending can be increased because of additional revenue.

Tucker said Jindal’s “backing off on prison sales” was “a wise decision to make” because of widespread opposition to the idea.

Johnson said Tucker “as a financial analyst, recognized the pitfalls” of Jindal’s proposal. “He recognized the lack of savings.”

“What benefit is it to privatize prisons this year and turn around next year and have to contract to run them?” Burrell asks. “The state still has to pay for keeping prisoners.”

Jindal says a private company could run the prisons for less.

“Cheapest is not always better,” Burrell said, recalling that the state has privatized prisons before, like the youth facility in Tallulah, and had to take them back.

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Jindal said it doesn’t make sense that the state owns two of the three prisons he wants to sell — those in Winn and Allen parishes — and pays all the maintenance while paying companies to run them.

If the idea gets to the House floor, “selling prison assets is going to be a close vote here,” Landry said.

Katz said, “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”

Privatizing

 

insurance

The governor also wants to privatize the state employee PPO insurance plan that’s now being administered by the Office of Group Benefits. He says that since other state insurance programs have been privatized and Louisiana is one of only two states that have state-operated plans, the state could lay off about 150 employees and have a private insurer take over the plan.

Jindal said he believes the state could make about $150 million selling the plan.

The way the governor is proposing to make the switch does not take a vote of the Legislature but does require approval of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. The committee consists of House and Senate members.

“I don’t see where the value is,” Tucker said of the governor’s plan to sell the OGB policies.

For one thing, he said, any private company would have to raise premiums to accumulate “risk-based capital” — a fund to cover chronic diseases of policy holders.

Group Benefits is not governed the same as private companies, so it doesn’t have to have such a fund.

“I don’t think we can sell OGB, nor should we,” he said.

Burrell said he’s concerned about the path the governor is taking because “it takes us out of the loop. When you take us out of the loop, it takes the public out of the loop because we represent the public.”

Johnson said many state employees and medical services providers in Central Louisiana have contacted him expressing opposition to the governor’s plan. Besides the employees’ concerns about the probability of premium increases and benefit reductions, providers are concerned about lower reimbursement rates.

“Just because we’re one of two states doing this doesn’t mean it’s bad,” Johnson said. “It’s being run extremely well. It had an excellent director, Tommy Teague, and the administration let him go. “[Commissioner of Administration] Paul Rainwater said they wanted somebody work with them. I want somebody who will work with the participants in the plan. I think they should hire him back.”

“‘ Mike Hasten covers the Louisiana Legislature for The Town Talk and Gannett Louisiana. Contact him at mhasten@gannett.com.

 
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Written by demon53

May 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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