- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:

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Nov. 22

The Times-Picayune on Louisiana reinvesting in higher education:

The strain on Louisiana colleges and universities from seven years of deep state budget cuts shows in myriad ways. Students may not be able to get into all the classes they need to keep their degrees on track, which means it could take them longer to graduate. And that could cost them more money.

Petroleum engineering at LSU has an 80-1 student-teacher ratio because of a lack of staff. At Southern University, there are 120 students in some classes. That isn’t the best environment for learning.

Potential faculty members are crossing Louisiana schools off their list because of the uncertainty of the state budget. And some students are going elsewhere because they can get more financial assistance or a better mix of courses in other states.

Those trends can’t continue. Higher education should be a key piece of Louisiana’s economic development strategy. The state should nourish its colleges and universities, but that hasn’t happened during Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure. The governor and Legislature have cut their state funding by more than 40 percent since 2008, the most in the nation.

Fortunately, there seems to be a renewed commitment to higher education. Legislative leaders and the Jindal administration promised to protect universities from midyear budget cuts as the state makes up a $500 million deficit.

There also is a consensus that the budget needs more flexibility and that some spending dedications will be removed when the Legislature meets in 2016. That will take pressure off higher education, which has no protections. And gubernatorial candidates promised to stabilize funding for universities. So far, so good.

“We’ve been told we’re going to be a priority. What does that mean?” LSU President King Alexander said Thursday in a meeting with NOLA.com ‘ The Times-Picayune.

“We need stability and predictability,” he said.

And, he and other higher education leaders say, they need an infusion of state money to keep them competitive.

State colleges and universities produce thousands of new graduates every year, many of whom are working and paying taxes in Louisiana.

“We want a little of that investment back,” President Alexander said. They would love to return to a 50-50 budget split between state funding and tuition and fees. With the cuts over the past seven years, that ratio is heavily tilted toward tuition and fees - 75-25 or 80-20 depending on the institution.

That puts more of a burden on families, even those who receive TOPS scholarship funding. And, Southern University’s Jacques Detiege pointed out at Thursday’s meeting, not every student gets TOPS money. So keeping tuition in Louisiana affordable is crucial, he said.

The payoff for a college education is dramatic, not only on students but on the state.

President Alexander pointed out that a college graduate pays on average $5,000 per year in state taxes. A master’s degree raises that amount to $8,000. By comparison, a high school graduate pays about $1,900.

So, strengthening universities in turn strengthens the state’s economy - and the state budget.

“Higher education is absolutely an investment,” Quintin Taylor, Louisiana Community and Technical College System director of media relations, said Thursday.

Louisiana has not been treating it that way.

Out of 16 Southern states, Louisiana provided the lowest amount of state general fund money per full-time student in 2013-14. Louisiana spent about $11,000 on each full-time pupil at a four-year college. In comparison, the Southern average was almost $15,000.

The Louisiana Board of Regents is asking the Legislature and new governor for roughly double the money next year. That would be another $769 million.

“We need them to help us get some reinvestment so we can continue producing the graduates Louisiana needs,” President Alexander has said.

The question is where to get that kind of money.

The Legislature, with Gov. Jindal’s OK, raised the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack, increased costs for businesses by reducing a variety of tax credits and raised fees on car buyers and other Louisianians during their 2015 session. All that was supposed to bring in an extra $700 million in revenue for the current budget year.

But it isn’t working out that way.

Budget analysts said this week that the state is $370 million behind budget expectations. In addition, the state ended the last budget year with a $117 million deficit, which must be dealt with. The state Medicaid budget has a shortfall of more than $500 million, and TOPS is short by $22 million.

Higher education officials fought hard during the spring legislative session to make state leaders understand the importance of their institutions to Louisiana’s well being. It seems they succeeded in doing that.

Now the governor and legislators must find a way to reinvest in higher education.

Online:

https://www.nola.com/

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Nov. 23

The Advocate on Louisiana Governor-elect John Bel Edwards:

The appointment of a veteran legislator from the Florida parishes as the next governor’s chief of staff underlines both the opportunities and the steep challenges facing Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards.

Edwards, from Amite, asked term-limited state Sen. Ben Nevers, of Bogalusa, to head his team during the transition and the administration.

Nevers served five years in the House and 12 in the Senate, where he was a committee chairman and respected by his peers. State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, said of Nevers: “Everybody likes him. It sets the right tone.”

Nevers, a Democrat, gained statewide attention in 2008 as the author of Louisiana’s “creationism” law allowing dubious materials challenging the theory of evolution into public schools. But lately, he was probably best known for a more substantive public policy struggle, when he allied with Edwards and others in an attempt to force Gov. Bobby Jindal to expand Medicaid insurance coverage for the working poor. The governor refused to do so, and the Legislature upheld Jindal’s decision.

Accepting federal dollars for Medicaid expansion is an early priority now for the new governor-elect. It’s not yet clear if Edwards will have to ask lawmakers to reverse their earlier decision against expansion. But it is certainly clear that the budget quagmire will require a willingness of legislators - most of whom were re-elected this year - to reverse, or at least partially roll back, some of their own votes during the years that Jindal was in charge.

The sometimes controversial public profile of Nevers is less important than the depth of his relationships with lawmakers who are faced with huge unpaid obligations left by the Jindal administration. With both the governor-elect and his newly named chief of staff coming directly from the Legislature, the administration is in a strong position - but will be asking lawmakers at the minimum to make tough calls on balancing the budget.

Clearly, it is those tough calls in planned special sessions in February, and the regular legislative session in the spring, that are an early focus for Edwards.

Online:

https://www.theadvocate.com

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Nov. 15

The Houma Courier on creating a federal plan for coastal restoration along the Gulf Coast:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs a comprehensive plan for how it will attack coastal restoration along the Gulf Coast.

Some might think that sounds like common sense, and it does.

Unfortunately, the corps lacks such a plan - and it is wasting money and effort by not linking together its various efforts in south Louisiana.

That is the word from Kyle Graham, director of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, who addressed a congressional meeting last week in New Orleans.

Graham pointed to the example of the corps dredging the Mississippi River to keep the channel clear for the large ships that make their way into and out of the Mississippi.

They could use the material that has to be removed from the river to build land elsewhere. Louisiana has put smaller versions of this plan to use in recent years.

Dredge material from the Atchafalaya River is pumped to nearby wetlands and marshes, where it helps to beat back the relentless erosion of our coast.

But the material in the Mississippi is lost, simply washing out into the Gulf.

“There’s wasted effort,” Graham told the nine members of Congress who gathered. “There’s a consequence for not using that sediment.”

South Louisiana has plenty of water and precious little land.

When a federal agency takes sediment from the bottom of the river, it would be relatively easy to put it to use in the critical battle against erosion.

As it is, though, the various goals of the corps seem to get lost rather than working off of one another.

That is a shame.

There is neither time nor money to spare in our ongoing coastal fight. And the federal government - the one entity with the money to actually make headway in the effort - needs to do everything within its power to help rather than hinder our efforts.

Far too often, we have seen local, regional and state restoration and flood protection projects stymied by federal bureaucratic delay.

If some of that frustration could be offset by a coordinated effort to put what resources are being used here to our best advantage, the ultimate goal could be brought a bit closer.

The ultimate goal is to keep south Louisiana a viable place to live and work for as long as possible for as many of us as possible. That means putting all our precious resources to their best possible use.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said during the meeting that he is hoping Congress will pass a new water bill in 2016, giving some hope that these pressing issues might get the attention they - and we - deserve from our federal government.

Online:

https://www.houmatoday.com/

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