Public college leaders seeking a stronger financial base and advocates pushing for financing solutions to the state’s woefully inadequate highway and bridge system made some modest strides in the recent legislative session.
But they achieved smaller victories than they sought when the session ended this month, as their larger proposals got sidetracked by the state’s continued budget woes.
Lawmakers can’t seem to have the broader conversations needed about long-term planning for priorities like higher education and infrastructure because they keep careening from financial crisis to financial crisis.
Higher education officials likely won’t dwell on the disappointments of a legislative session in which they were threatened with state financing cuts of 80 percent, but ended with a standstill budget that has increases for some campuses in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
That victory was hailed by university system presidents and college leaders around Louisiana. However, while they got the most important win, higher education still fell short of its repeated push for more financial freedom.
Efforts to give higher education management boards the ability to set tuition rates for their own campuses — without requiring the hefty two-thirds legislative vote for increased charges — again stalled with lawmakers who worried students could be priced out of school. Even a proposal that would only apply to graduate program tuition rates, complete with limits on how long the authority would last and how high it could go, couldn’t win passage.
Those measures would have helped put college campuses on more solid, long-term footing, able to generate more of their own cash, rather than having to wait and see if state funding for the schools will be yanked away each year.
Besides escaping cuts, higher education did make two gains for their financial stability.
They won final passage of a bill by Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, that will let college system management boards boost fees on students, but only for two years. They also got the possibility of new freedoms from state bureaucracy for bulk purchasing and other financial decisions.
Advocates seeking new dollars for Louisiana’s $12 billion backlog of repairs to crumbling roads and bridges, highway upgrades and port improvements also fell short of their long-term goal in the session. But they boosted financing a bit to help their cause.
Lawmakers agreed to put the brakes on spending state gasoline tax money for items other than roadwork, backing a cap on the dollars that can be diverted from the state Transportation Trust Fund to state police operations each year.
Under the bill by Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, up to $45 million from the trust fund can be spent on state police in the upcoming fiscal year. A year later, that will drop to $20 million. After that, it will be limited to $10 million annually.
That will keep gas tax dollars spent on the road and bridge work, boosting available funds each year. Since 2011, $241 million has been steered to state police operations instead.
Changes also were made to how a state tax is levied on certain fuels, like compressed natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas, and a discount given to fuel suppliers and distributers was reduced. The changes were estimated to pour another $6 million into the Transportation Trust Fund annually, maybe more.
Meanwhile, voters will decide whether to change the rules of the state’s “rainy day” fund to provide additional money for roads. The proposal by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, would generate an estimated $21 million over the next five years for transportation projects — but much more in later years, estimated at as much as $100 million annually.
But the big-ticket sales tax and gas tax increase bills, designed to provide billions of dollars for infrastructure, were shot down by lawmakers leery of raising new taxes in an election year after already agreeing to boost taxes to balance the budget.
Talk of ways to provide more financial stability for colleges and boosted funding for roadwork will continue into this fall’s governor’s race and into the next terms of office.
Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.