COLUMN: McNeese needs our support now

http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODE/APress/LandingPage/LandingPage.aspx?href=QW1QLzIwMTUvMDIvMDU.&pageno=NA..&entity=QXIwMDQwMQ..&view=ZW50aXR5 Jim Beam How much longer are citizens and university alumni going to allow the Gov. Bobby Jindal administration and the Legislature to continue their pitiful funding of the state’s higher education institutions? I remember back in 1996 when there was an effort to eliminate vital degree programs at state colleges and universities. One of our readers in one sentence offered a great description of how that affects higher education. “Every time a program is eliminated, it diminishes us as a community,” the reader said. If the elimination of one program does that, you can imagine how colleges and universities are affected when faculty leave their campuses in droves looking for better opportunities elsewhere. Administration leaders are also seeking a more secure future. McNeese State University and other higher education institutions in Louisiana need legislative, citizen and alumni support now more than perhaps anytime in their history. It will take decades to fix the problems created by the deplorable financial conditions faced at all campuses across the state. Many of us who have benefited tremendously from our McNeese education have run out of patience. Consider what has happened to the university’s budget since Jindal took office in 2008. State funding for McNeese in Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s 2004-05 budget totaled $27.5 million. By the time she left office in 2008, state funding had increased to $43 million. The first budget of the Jindal administration kept state funding at that level, but it was mostly downhill from there. The fiscal 2009-10 budget contained $32 million in state funding and that dropped to $31 million the next year. The slide continued to $26.9 million, $23.1 million, $19.9 million and $19.2 million over the next four years. The same situation has occurred at other higher education institutions in the state, but still there appears to be no great citizen or alumni movement to say enough is enough. Jindal and his administrators argue that tuition has been raised over the years and that makes up the difference in state funding losses. However, that simply isn’t true. Now, there is talk of a potential $370 million higher education budget reduction for fiscal year 2015-16 because of a $1.6 billion shortfall in funding. The Associated Press notes the state has had budget problems since Jindal took office in 2008. It reported that $1 billion of next year’s shortage is tied to the loss of piecemeal financing that the governor and legislators used to pay for services and programs this year that won’t be available next year. Jindal has made it abundantly clear he isn’t going to approve any tax increases or the elimination of tax breaks that are designed to raise needed revenues. And that is only part of the story. Jindal insists he isn’t going to cut any funding to the popular TOPS scholarship program, even though it has been reported students of wealthier citizens are the major beneficiaries. It has been estimated TOPS will cost the state $250 million next year and $387 million by 2018. Some in higher income brackets have said TOPS is the only thing they ever get back from the government for the taxes they pay. What about highways, schools, health care, prisons, higher education institutions, police protection, agricultural services and state parks and wildlife areas? The state wouldn’t be in this terrible financial shape if Jindal and the Legislature had left the Stelly Plan income tax changes in place. It got rid of state sales taxes, and they were never replaced. How many times are we going to have to keep hearing the governor and Kristy Nichols, his commissioner of administration, tell us everything is all right with the world? The latest came when state Treasurer John Kennedy said a national credit rating agency warned that Louisiana’s budget has a “structural deficit” that has been worsened by falling oil prices. Nichols, in a statement, said, “We currently have the highest ratings we’ve had in two decades. While the decline in oil prices has created a challenging situation, we are going to make the reductions necessary to balance our budget and maintain our rating.” Wow, isn’t that comforting? Our colleges and universities are hurting like never before, and are we supposed to feel good about that? McNeese has played a key role in the educational and economic development of my family and for many other Southwest Louisiana families. So, it hurts like hell to see it and other higher education institutions struggling just to stay afloat. Those members of the Legislature who don’t seize upon the upcoming fiscal session to turn this situation around don’t deserve to be re-elected or hold any other public office. They have already waited too long to put an end to this madness. Let me end with some words for our readers from an April 18, 1996, column I wrote that said, “McNeese enriches many lives.” Look around you. There are successful people throughout our community who owe so much to the educational experiences they had at McNeese. However, the university is more than a place of learning. It is the center of cultural and educational development for all of Southwest Louisiana. Don’t our children and grandchildren deserve the same advantages we have enjoyed? Call your legislators today and tell them it’s time to stand up and be counted for the universities they represent. l JIM BEAM, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871 or jbeam@americanpress.com? .

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