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2011 December 26 - 12:00 am

POLICY and POLITICS: La. College Study Panel Pushes More Power for Regents

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The latest commission studying Louisiana’s public colleges suggested that the Board of Regents have more power over college management boards and the state dollars flowing to them, a proposal certain to spark controversy in the Legislature.

The panel, called the Governance Commission, backed 21 recommendations, most of which would need legislative approval before they could be enacted and some of which would also need voter support in an election.

Louisiana has management boards for the LSU System, the University of Louisiana System, the Southern University System and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. The Board of Regents is supposed to drive higher education policy and oversee the other four boards, which are supposed to handle the day-to-day operations of their campuses.

Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell, Regents members and some lawmakers have complained that there’s not a clear line of authority because the college systems can ignore the funding formula devised by the Regents board, arguing their constitutional independence.

“There are ambiguities,” said Barry Erwin, a Governance Commission member and president of the nonpartisan Council for A Better Louisiana. “It’s time for us to do something to fix the problem.”

The Governance Commission overwhelmingly backed recommendations that lawmakers change Louisiana’s Constitution to give Regents more authority over the higher education budget and to define Regents as the top board in higher education management.

“This is a great opportunity once and for all to say we’re going to establish clear lines of accountability,” said Regents Chairman Bob Levy, a member of the Governance Commission. He added, “If you don’t have the money, you can’t enforce the policy.”

College systems would have to follow Regents’ funding formula for divvying up state cash to campuses, Regents would drive conversations on state spending for college construction projects and the Regents board would become “the accountable entity for the performance of higher education in Louisiana.”’

The leaders of individual university systems, who have fought such proposals before, were expected to take issue with them again if they are proposed by lawmakers. The bar for passage is a hefty one, requiring a two-thirds vote of lawmakers plus approval by voters in a statewide ballot.

Three members of the panel objected to the constitutional amendment proposals, saying state law already spells out Regents’ authority.

“I don’t think we can pass a constitutional amendment without doing great harm,”’ said Winfred Sibille, chairman of the University of Louisiana System board and a member of the Governance Commission.

Sibille said the battle over a constitutional change could damage collaborative relationships between university systems, campuses and the Board of Regents.

Other suggestions backed by the commission were:

  • A revamp of the free college tuition program called TOPS, to give all students a flat grant amount, capped at the same level for everyone, rather than tied to the cost of tuition at an individual school. Panel members said that would give the state more ability to control the costs of TOPS, and could give some students money to cover costs beyond tuition, like books and student fees.

  • Increases in need-based financial aid for students.

  • Removal of the requirement that lawmakers approve college tuition increases and instead give that authority to the four college management boards, following a policy outlined by the Board of Regents.

The 18-member Governance Commission — which includes lawmakers, higher education officials and business leaders — will vote on a final version of its recommendations in January before forwarding them to lawmakers.

Scrapped by the panel were several contentious ideas, including proposals to shift all two-year campuses into the community college system and to merge all college management into a single higher education board.

The commission specifically recommended against the single board proposal, saying it would produce only minimal savings and wouldn’t necessarily improve performance.

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