By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards is asking lawmakers to spend $19 million more this year on higher education than was budgeted, to fill gaps in the TOPS college tuition program, help schools facing accreditation reviews and pay for boosted online resources for students.
The items are included on a list of additional spending requests for the budget year ending June 30 that the Democratic governor is asking lawmakers to finance in their upcoming legislative session. The Board of Regents provided a detailed breakdown of the higher education proposals Wednesday to The Associated Press.
The highest-price-tag item is $5.9 million for TOPS, which costs more for this school year than the $295 million lawmakers allocated for it. Lawmakers regularly fill late-year gaps in the free tuition program.
Other dollars would pay for LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center to recruit faculty, an expense matched with private foundation money. The LSU and Southern University AgCenters would get more cash, and LSU’s New Orleans medical school would receive more than $2 million to pay a new lease arrangement with the Louisiana Cancer Research Center.
Under the governor’s proposal, $3 million would be steered to online resources for students, such as electronic textbooks, an initiative that Regents spokeswoman Meg Casper Sunstrom said seeks to reduce costs for students who have seen tuition and fees grow.
Another $5 million would give cash influxes to three campuses under accreditation review, amid concerns they are at risk of losing the validation standard. The schools include Northshore Technical Community College, Central Louisiana Technical Community College and the University of Louisiana at Monroe’s pharmacy school.
House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry questioned the accreditation-related spending during a joint House and Senate budget hearing Tuesday. He said the schools should try to “rework their business model.”
“It can’t be, ‘When in doubt, we’ll just go to the Legislature and get more money.’ That’s not sustainable,” said Henry, a Jefferson Parish Republican.
Barbara Goodson, the governor’s deputy commissioner of administration, said repeated cuts to state financing before Edwards took office have caused problems at higher education institutions.
“We’re still grappling with some of these growth issues which were caused by years of less funding,” she said.
Louisiana only has two pharmacy programs, one at ULM and the other at the private Xavier University in New Orleans. While Henry questioned the funding proposal, several lawmakers said Louisiana needs to ensure the viability of its only pharmacy program at a public college.
“There’s a huge shortage of pharmacists in the state today. They can’t graduate enough. But due to budgetary constraints, they’ve had to limit their enrollment,” said Sen. Ronnie Johns, a Lake Charles Republican who graduated from the ULM pharmacy school. “We’ve got to do everything we can to keep their accreditation on an even keel.”
Edwards’ list of additional spending requests for the current year tops $82 million, such as $25 million to repay FEMA for the state’s share of disaster-recovery efforts from different storms and other public-safety items previously backed by lawmakers.
Before the Louisiana Legislature can determine the fate of any of the spending proposals, Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras must agree to increase the state income forecast to provide enough money to cover the costs. Barras has blocked forecast changes so far, raising concerns about the stability of the state’s economy.