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Archive for May, 2012

All but lost in the brouhaha over Gov. Piyush Jindal’s overt moves to privatize the Louisiana Office of Risk Management, Office of Group Benefits, state prisons, Medicaid, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance and K-12 public education is the quiet but steady erosion of state financial support for state colleges and universities that is pushing higher education toward that same precipice.

Once considered sacrosanct, Louisiana’s state colleges and universities no longer are considered untouchable by legislators. Accordingly, administrators find themselves having to seek funding more and more from private endowments and from tuition increases that threaten to push student costs to a prohibitive level for all but the wealthiest.

And Louisiana is by no means the exception. The trend toward pseudo- and outright privatization is becoming more prevalent in all 50 states as state colleges fall victim to cuts in state aid, the depletion of federal stimulus dollars, tuition increases, caps in enrollment and the elimination of positions. Throw in billions upon billions of dollars in corporate tax exemptions and it’s easy to comprehend the fiscal disaster Louisiana has been courting for decades.

Even as this perfect storm gathers momentum, conservative legislators, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are pushing to recast state universities in the mold of private corporations.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is because state colleges across the country are following the same track as K-12 public education in the conversions to charter schools—another of ALEC’s model legislative crown jewels.

In fact, the plan for higher ed was presented at ALEC’s national convention in New Orleans last August. That meeting was hosted by then-State Rep. Noble Ellington (R-Winnsboro), ALEC’s 2011 national president. Ellington, who did not seek re-election, eased from his House seat to a more comfortable position as second in command at the State Department of Insurance at a salary of $150,000 per year.

ALEC, which purportedly espouses increased transparency in government, restricted access to its New Orleans meeting and specifically barred the media.

And, considering Jindal’s dogged determination to privatize everything public and his penchant for secrecy, it must be no coincidence that ALEC bestowed upon him its Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award at last August’s New Orleans closed-door convention.

Alarming examples of this slow trip down Privatization Lane abound in practically any state one chooses to observe.

In Texas, for example, Gov. Rick Perry, whom Jindal backed in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, has packed the board of regents at all six state college systems with political allies who, like Perry, adhere to the Republican mantra that colleges should be run like businesses whose “customers are students.”

In Arizona, voters in 2010 approved a state referendum banning affirmative action in state universities, replicating the same action taken in Florida in 1999.

At the University of Virginia, the first public college in America and founded by Thomas Jefferson, the state provides less than 8 percent of the school’s operating budget, down from 28 percent 25 years ago. Things are no better at William & Mary and Virginia Tech, prompting Virginia’s three flagship universities to ask the General Assembly to make them “chartered” universities, which would give them freedom to set tuition and to run themselves.

Of the $1.8 billion cost to operate all 27 of Louisiana’s state universities, colleges, junior colleges and technical colleges, only $734.2 million, or 40.2 percent, came from state appropriations but even that figure is deceiving because Jindal has ordered an additional cut of $50 million.

In February, not long after Jindal submitted his executive budget, then-LSU Systems President John Lombardi, no doubt at Jindal’s behest, sent an email to his administrators asking that they not complain about Jindal’s proposed elimination of 2,837 positions in higher education. Lombardi said that Jindal would appreciate it if the administration acknowledged that the budget “gives higher ed special treatment…”

That “special treatment,” it turned out, was a carrot that Jindal dangled before university presidents in the form of a promise of $100 million for higher education should the governor’s retirement package pass.

It didn’t.

Goodbye $100 million.

And on April 27, goodbye Lombardi as the LSU Board of Supervisors, acquiescing to Jindal’s wishes, unceremoniously fired the LSU president.

A spokesperson for the Board of Regents said that the state only a few years ago provided 70 percent of the funding for state colleges and universities with tuition making up most of the balance. That formula is virtually reversed today with the state providing 40 percent and tuition and other resources providing 60 percent.

This trend toward privatization is not new; it has been taking place for more than a decade, but the implications are only now becoming clear.

As state financial support dwindles and colleges begin implementing double-digit tuition increases, the result is that the school’s mission to provide access to higher education for all suddenly becomes a mission more akin to a private university that caters only to those who can afford it.

Sometimes, even that doesn’t work. When Virginia Commonwealth University bumped its tuition by 24 percent to make up for previous cuts in state appropriations, Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell cut the school’s appropriation even more.

Consequently, as flagships gravitate toward the elitism of privatization, poor and middle-class students are priced out of their institutions and into second-tier schools. This then creates the social stratification of higher education in which the elite colleges are filled with kids from upper income families while kids from poorer backgrounds are relegated to less prestigious schools.

What was it again that Romney said about class warfare? Oh, yes, he said that the Occupy Wall Street protests represented class warfare.

So, when state colleges privatize and their tuition, which currently averages around $7,500 a year (not including room and board), escalates to the private college levels of $25,000 to $40,000 a year, many students who do manage get into those schools will do so only by taking out ever-larger student loans and just who will profit from that?

A few clues:

• Sallie Mae currently has $21 billion in student loans on its books;

• Citi Student Loans, part of Citibank: $5.9 billion;

• Wachovia Education Finance: $5.5 billion;

• Bank of America: $4.9 billion;

• JP Morgan Chase (yes, the one that just reported the $2 billion trading loss): $3.5 billion.

And those loans are guaranteed by the federal government so the lenders are betting on a sure thing, which is more than be said of the students. Even taking the low end of $25,000 tuition plus room and board, a student graduating in four years would exit as a 21- or 22-year-old college graduate, possibly with no job, and with a $150,000 debt (Don’t forget the room and board). Add two years of graduate study and presto! His debt is now $200,000. No wonder he moves back home.

ALEC was ostensibly founded to promote the “Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty.”

One has to wonder if this is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind for his school.

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The state’s 2012 Capital Outlay Bill (House Bill 2) contains more than $1.5 billion in priority 1 projects and another $1.2 billion in priorities 2 and 5 projects.

The bill, which was approved by the full House on May 17, was heard by the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee on Monday, May 28, and now goes to the full Senate for debate. If the Senate version finally passed is different from the House version, the bill will go to a conference committee to hammer out a compromise and still must be approved by both chambers.

After final passage by both chambers, the bill will go to Gov. Bobby Jindal who, by line item veto, may eliminate projects he deems wasteful or which may obtain funding elsewhere.

At a time when the state is grappling with revenue shortfalls and budget deficits, this year’s construction bill is packed with more than more than $180 million in priority 1 local spending projects such as festivals, ball parks, sports complexes, community centers, professional sports facilities, groundwater reservoirs and golf courses.

Some of those include:

• $17.5 million for professional sports facilities in Jefferson and Orleans parishes;

• $1.17 million for New Orleans Zephyrs baseball facilities repair;

• $21.5 million for the New Orleans Sports Arena improvements;

• $17.2 million for an economic development award program for infrastructure assistance;

• $7.74 million for wet-lab business incubators statewide;

• $20 million for aerospace manufacturing infrastructure in New Orleans;

• $10 million for mega-project site preparation statewide;

• $4.6 million for renovations to the River Center Arena and Theatre in Baton Rouge;

• $1.4 million for baseball stadium improvements in Baton Rouge;

• $2 million for construction of a community center in north Iberville Parish;

• $6.7 million for improvements to the Bayou Segnette sports complex in Jefferson Parish;

• $8.6 million for land acquisition and additional cabins for Bayou Segnette State Park;

• $13 million for Bayou Segnette Festival Park land acquisition and construction;

• $600,000 for construction in raw undeveloped area of Parc de Families in Jefferson parish;

• $8.5 million for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Natchitoches State Museum;

• $6.6 million for improvements to New Orleans City Park golf course;

• $2 million for improvements to amusement area at New Orleans City Park;

• $2.4 million for Bayou Dechene Reservoir in Caldwell Parish;

• $1.7 million for real estate acquisition and improvements to Poverty Point Reservoir;

• $2.6 million for Washington Parish Reservoir study, planning and construction;

• $950,000 for repair and renovation of the Strand Theatre in Shreveport;

• $400,000 for a multipurpose evacuation shelter and community center in Avoyelles Parish;

• $4.2 million for a golf course development in Calcasieu Parish;

• $635,000 for the Woodmere Community Center in Jefferson Parish;

• $2 million for a governmental complex and jail upgrade in Lafayette Parish;

• $2.3 million for a multipurpose community center in Bienville Parish;

• $1 million for a fire station and public service center in St. Mary Parish;

• $1.6 million for a cultural center for the arts in Jefferson Parish;

• $250,000 for a Maurice civic center-post hurricane shelter in Vermilion Parish;

• $400,000 for Rosenwald Community Center in Orleans Parish;

• $200,000 for renovations to the Dansereau Harris Playground in Orleans Parish;

• $1 million for improvements to park land in Jefferson Parish;

• $215,000 for a Winnsboro community center in Franklin Parish;

• $4 million for Phase 2 construction of the West Calcasieu Community Center;

• $2.85 million for a public safety complex for the Lincoln Parish Sheriff’s Office in Ruston;

That comes to a little more than $182.4 million – and that’s just a small sampling of the $1.5 billion in projects included in the bill.

The bill passed the House by an 84-15 vote with 6 members absent.

Those voting against the bill were Reps. Richard Burford (R-Stonewall), Thomas Carmody (R-Shreveport), Simone Champagne (R-Erath), Brett Geymann (R-Lake Charles), Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), Bob Hensgens (R-Abbeville), Nancy Landry (R-Lafayette), Anthony Ligi (R-Metairie), Sherman Mack (R-Livingston), Jim Morris (R-Oil City), Steve Pylant (R-Winnsboro), John Schroder (R-Covington), Alan Seabaugh (R-Shreveport), Jeff Thompson (R-Bossier City) and Lenar Whitney (R-Houma).

Absent and not voting were Reps. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans), Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge), Raymond Garofalo (R-Chalmette), Joe Harrison (R-Gray), Girod Jackson (D-Harvey) and Jerome Richard (I-Thibodaux).

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“The challenge is one of timing. Will the regime escape to higher…office before the consequences of (its) bad management crash the state?

–Former LSU System President John V. Lombardi in his internet blog, “Governance: A Fable.”

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John Lombardi was recently fired from his position as president of the LSU System. The firing, orchestrated by Gov. Piyush Jindal, was primarily the result of Lombardi’s refusal to parrot the party line on funding and because he insisted on being his own man. Whether Lombardi’s management style was best for LSU or not, his firing was just another in a long line of dismissals of anyone who dared think or speak for himself – something simply not allowed by Tsar jindal.

This piece, a classic parody, was written by Lombardi and posted on his blog Inside Higher Ed. Critics say this piece has no moral, no point. We couldn’t disagree more. Only the staunchest Jindal loyalist or someone who has no sense of Louisiana political history could make such a claim.

While we offer no opinion on Lombardi’s tenure at LSU, we nevertheless feel this should be required reading for not only Gov. Piyush Jindal but members of the Legislature as well. Accordingly, we offer it for your edification.

By John V. Lombardi

Imagine a small, developing country of perhaps 3 million people. Like many other small developing countries, our imaginary nation is rich in natural resources, its economy has prospered on the export of agricultural crops and benefited from the revenue generated by petroleum production, refining, and support services. Its history, like some of its counterparts in the developing world, reflects a constant structural economic weakness covered by a colorful culture, truly creative and charming people, and an often dramatic sequence of past events. Civil wars, civilian uprisings, and the failure to compete with more dynamic and successful nations have left our country with a small, wealthy, interbred, and interconnected elite, a growing entrepreneurial middle class, and a large much less prosperous population of rural residents and urban poor.

Riven by cultural conflicts generations old and struggling with an archaic political system, the country periodically falls into the hands of populist demagogues and petty tyrants. In between, often when prosperity strikes, the country’s significant group of responsible leaders seeks to enhance legal and institutional structures to improve its ability to attract and retain internationally competitive economic enterprises, but the periods of responsible leadership fade fast, and the nation reverts to a pattern of clientele government, backroom deals, and populist rhetoric.

Over all, its population remains significantly less educated relative to its peers in nearby nations, although a structure of incentives and subsidies support good education for the children of the growing middle class and the political and economic elite. Other groups of citizens struggle through underfunded and inadequate schools, and those who survive often find themselves excluded from post-secondary opportunities by weak academic preparation and high cost.

Periodically, reformers achieve significant positions, supported by responsible citizen leadership, and demonstrate major improvements in translating the nation’s extensive resources into true economic change and transformational progress. Their efforts, often promising at first, can collapse when confronted with a structure of privilege, relationships, and politics that remains powerful in spite of the considerable achievements of reform-minded citizens. The reformers, confronted by a resurgence of clientele politics, leave the national stage and return to private life, sometimes abroad in more receptive national climates.

In its current incarnation, this small republic operates with a populist authoritarian government led by individuals in search of advancement to more prosperous and internationally significant posts. Their skillful combination of populist rhetoric, economic manipulation of a state dominated economy, and first-world media management has maintained them in power. The regime has taken every opportunity to create illusions of progress by continuously bleeding the nation’s treasury to buy the participation of foreign companies that receive tax-supported subsidies. Their arsenal of management also includes the use of state resources to conclude beneficial contracts with favored national business interests.

When confronted with opposition, the regime mobilizes its sycophantic adherents and paid partisans to discredit, isolate, and eventually drive out any people with an ability or opportunity to address the real issues and consequences of the regime’s behavior. The technique, developed with great political skill, involves three fronts.

The first is the effort to co-opt anyone with an independent perspective. These individuals receive coveted appointments to government boards, association with the regime’s powerful people, and assurances that the regime will protect their business and personal interests. This works quite effectively with some people, although others choose not to participate, and normally responsible individuals become dependents of the regime, bound to provide whatever support the regime requires.

When this strategy fails, as it often does with independent agency officials of some visibility, the regime turns to a form of more direct engagement. In this second mode, representatives of the regime explain to the official that the better tactic for success during these years would involve a collaborative arrangement with the regime. That collaboration would provide support and regime protection for the official, permitting continued leadership of the agency. But to achieve this protection and collaboration, and to ensure that the agreement to work together is of substance, the regime requires a test of loyalty. This loyalty test requires the official to dispose of close associates whose work the regime dislikes. Absent those associates, the regime’s messengers promise but do not guarantee the official a secure role as a significant leader under the regime’s protection.

This message of threat disguised as offer is usually delivered by reputable business leaders associated with the regime who also maintain a relationship with the non-conforming official. Should the official appear at all reluctant, the regime then reinforces the message by mobilizing their most trusted direct political operatives to echo the message.

When this second more direct approach fails, the regime moves to the third stage and mobilizes its dependents, especially those connected in one way or another to the non-conforming official, and identifies a method to remove the dangerous behavior of regime independence. This involves a conspiracy to exile the offending official, preferably to another nation. Recognizing the transparency of this maneuver, the regime activates its media experts and develops a slanderous rationale for the forced exile. A few courageous people object, but others fall silent, for the price of failing to cooperate with the regime is now clearly revealed.

Once the offending official goes into exile, the regime moves quickly to place a reliable regime loyalist in the agency’s leadership role to consolidate control over the formerly independent entity. Its purchased adherents, careful of their economic and personal relationships with the regime, cover the transactions with bureaucratic formalism while creating opportunities for regime favorites to find a home in the now domesticated agency. This completes another cycle of institutional failure.

In the end, of course, the regime’s time is finite due to national restrictions on re-election, and the regime leadership seeks elevation to more significant and visible international settings. However, to make the move to international position, the regime’s key members must desperately manage to cover over the impact of structural inequality, the destructive effects of mismanaging the economy, and the constant need to feed the purchased business and other elite participants who live from government subsidies and contracts.

The challenge is one of timing. Will the regime escape to higher international office before the consequences of their bad management crash the state?

Such fables as these may not match any known reality, but the moral of the story may well be real.

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“Dirty rice is a spicy Cajun dish compounded from the king of grains and the rough-chopped innards ob beast and fowl. It is best eaten hot, eyes closed, no questions asked.”

–Cliff Probst, from “What to Eat in Louisiana.”

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