Report from Louisiana: Crisis!

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Report from Louisiana: Crisis!

By: Pat Austin

SHREVE­PORT – When news broke this past Thurs­day that John Bel Edwards had halted all pay­ments to the enor­mously pop­u­lar TOPS col­lege schol­ar­ship pro­gram, you could feel the panic and des­per­a­tion through­out the state. Thurs­day after­noon, Feb­ru­ary 11, word came down about the pro­gram via NOLA:

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ bud­get chief, Jay Dar­d­enne, said the state will have to leave TOPS approx­i­mately $28 mil­lion short of what it would take to fully fund the pro­gram through the end of the semes­ter. He said all pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties will be informed that they would not receive all their TOPS pay­ment this spring.

Dar­d­enne added that TOPS could only be fully funded this year if the Leg­is­la­ture agreed to raise taxes a lot — over a half a bil­lion dol­lars — in the next cou­ple of months. Even then, the Edwards admin­is­tra­tion would likely pri­or­i­tize fill­ing a short­fall in the Med­ic­aid pro­gram before the col­lege schol­ar­ship pro­gram would receive the money it needs.

The TOPS pro­gram began in 1989 and, in brief, it pays col­lege tuition to in-​state uni­ver­si­ties for Louisiana stu­dents who score a cer­tain per­cent­age on the ACT and who main­tain a cer­tain GPA. The intent was to keep our kids here in the state. Through the years the require­ments have been tweaked with the GPA require­ment now at 2.5 and the ACT score now at 20. You can read more specifics here.

Now, there are a cou­ple of things to look at in those two para­graphs from NOLA: first, Dar­d­enne said basi­cally that those stu­dents already enrolled in the spring semes­ter are on the hook for the bal­ance of the tuition they had been told would be paid through their schol­ar­ship. Lit­er­ally what he said was that the col­leges would “absorb” the cost of the unpaid bal­ance. Recall that higher edu­ca­tion through­out the state has already been dec­i­mated by Bobby Jin­dal and there is no room to “absorb” any­thing. Stu­dents across the state went to bed Thurs­day night antic­i­pat­ing bills for the bal­ances to hit their mail­boxes any moment.

The sec­ond thing to note from that NOLA quote is that Dar­d­enne indi­cated that even if the money to fund TOPS was found, it would instead go toward fund­ing Med­ic­aid rather than sat­is­fy­ing the promised TOPS debt.

Fur­ther: Just a week before the TOPS black­mail, Edwards called for an emer­gency spe­cial ses­sion to deal with the state’s bud­get short­fall and noted that a plethora of tax increases are on the table, to include:

Income tax hikes

Cig­a­rette tax hikes

Sales tax hikes on leased prop­erty and some services

Busi­ness util­ity tax hikes

Alco­hol tax hikes

Taxes on AirBnB and any­one else who rents out a spare room

Taxes on the oil and gas industry

In essence, what John Bel Edwards has done is use emo­tional black­mail on the stu­dents and fam­i­lies of this state for the pur­pose of rais­ing taxes on every­thing he pos­si­bly can. Fam­i­lies went to sleep Thurs­day night in seri­ous dis­tress over the finan­cial future of their child’s col­lege edu­ca­tion. It’s not that these peo­ple don’t want to get stu­dent loans or work their way through col­lege – most would have been more than will­ing to do so, but the TOPS pro­gram had been promised to them and they sched­uled every high school course with the under­stand­ing of what was required of them to earn this schol­ar­ship. For the gov­er­nor to threaten to pull the rug out from under their feet is unconscionable.

And so, the next day, word comes down that mirac­u­lously money has been found to fund TOPS through the rest of this spring semes­ter, but next year? Not so much. Con­sid­er­a­tions to con­tinue the pro­gram sug­gest a required ACT score of 28 to earn the schol­ar­ship and cut­ting the fund­ing from $250 mil­lion to $60 mil­lion – about 80% of the cur­rent schol­ar­ships would be eliminated.

As if emo­tional black­mail of our stu­dents wasn’t enough, Gov­er­nor Edwards addressed the state on tele­vi­sion to explain the cri­sis and his actions and he said that stu­dent ath­letes are also in danger.

Yes, he poked the sacred cow of LSU foot­ball.

He really went there.

As I men­tioned ear­lier, if the leg­is­la­ture fails to act and we are forced to pro­ceed with these cuts, the LSU Ag Cen­ter and parish exten­sion offices in every parish, and Pen­ning­ton Bio­med­ical Research Cen­ter will close by April 1st and the LSU main cam­pus in Baton Rouge will run out of money after April 30th, as will the Health Sci­ences Cen­ter in Shreve­port and LSU Eunice. There is no money left for pay­roll after those dates. The South­ern Uni­ver­sity Sys­tem, and Uni­ver­sity of Louisiana Sys­tem, and the Louisiana Com­mu­nity and Tech­ni­cal Col­lege Sys­tem are in the same boat: with­out leg­is­la­tors approv­ing new rev­enue this spe­cial ses­sion, some cam­puses will be forced to declare finan­cial bank­ruptcy, which would include mas­sive lay­offs and the can­cel­la­tion of classes.

If you are a stu­dent attend­ing one of these uni­ver­si­ties, it means that you will receive a grade of incom­plete, many stu­dents will not be able to grad­u­ate and stu­dent ath­letes across the state at those schools will be inel­i­gi­ble to play next semes­ter. That means you can say farewell to col­lege foot­ball next fall.

The text of the speech can be found here.

You can only imag­ine the hys­te­ria that caused. It seemed for a few moments there that we would totally implode. Never mind the kids’ schol­ar­ships! Never mind the cuts to the New Oppor­tu­nity Waiver pro­gram which helps fam­i­lies with devel­op­men­tally dis­abled chil­dren, we can’t sur­vive with­out football!

At the very least this dam­ages recruit­ing efforts. Who would want to sign with a uni­ver­sity that may not have a program?

Edwards pushed every sin­gle but­ton he could to incite fear and panic through­out the state. Yes, it’s a real prob­lem. We are broke. But on the same day he also elim­i­nated the work require­ment from food stamps. Pre­vi­ously, recip­i­ents had to work twenty hours a week or be enrolled in a fed­er­ally approved job train­ing pro­gram. Not anymore.

And so it didn’t take long for the recall talk to start.

There is a Face­book group, Recall John Bel Edwards, which cur­rently has about 5,500 mem­bers. There is a Change​.org peti­tion to recall the gov­er­nor estab­lished solely for the pur­pose of mon­i­tor­ing num­bers and inter­est in a for­mal recall; this peti­tion has over 14,000 sig­na­tures so far. Over a mil­lion vot­ers would have to sign a for­mal recall petition.

The bot­tom line is that the state is now in panic mode. Edwards said in his speech that these cuts “are not scare tac­tics. This is real­ity…” but peo­ple are scared. Every­where I’ve been over the past few days, you hear sub­dued and wor­ried con­ver­sa­tions about the cuts. Peo­ple are angry that enti­tle­ment pro­grams are being expanded while edu­ca­tion is being cut. Peo­ple are angry at the emo­tional black­mail that if we don’t pres­sure our rep­re­sen­ta­tives to vote for the new taxes, every­thing will be cut. Peo­ple are angry that there’s no talk of the bil­lions in state con­tracts that will remain untouched.

State Trea­surer John Kennedy gave the Repub­li­can response after Gov­er­nor Edwards’s speech and he declared that we don’t have a rev­enue prob­lem, we have a spend­ing prob­lem. He rightly pointed out that these tax increases will wreck our frag­ile econ­omy. Kennedy said he has sent over 400 ideas to the governor’s office to cut spend­ing rather than raise taxes. In his speech, he listed six of those, which included audit­ing Med­ic­aid fraud which cur­rently exists to the tune of about $900 mil­lion dol­lars. He also sug­gested revis­ing Med­ic­aid so that patients stop going to the emer­gency room for things like acne or to see if they need glasses, or other such minor con­cerns that could be bet­ter han­dled in a doctor’s office. Kennedy also sug­gested cut­ting the statu­tory ded­i­ca­tions and the 19,000 con­sul­tants cur­rently on our pay­roll. He noted also that 22% of the man­agers in gov­ern­ment man­age only one person.

While every­one acknowl­edges that Jindal’s smoke and mir­rors method of bal­anc­ing the bud­get got us into this mess, nobody is will­ing to con­cede that sac­ri­fic­ing higher edu­ca­tion and black­mail­ing our stu­dents and stu­dent ath­letes is a good plan. Nei­ther is tax­ing every­thing. Repub­li­cans are going to be more will­ing to work with Edwards if he will at least con­sider cut­ting some of the enti­tle­ments and slash­ing some of the exces­sive spend­ing in government.

These are dark days in Louisiana. The spe­cial ses­sion con­vened yes­ter­day and we are wait­ing with high anx­i­ety to see the outcome.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – When news broke this past Thursday that John Bel Edwards had halted all payments to the enormously popular TOPS college scholarship program, you could feel the panic and desperation throughout the state.  Thursday afternoon, February 11, word came down about the program via NOLA:

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget chief, Jay Dardenne, said the state will have to leave TOPS approximately $28 million short of what it would take to fully fund the program through the end of the semester. He said all public universities will be informed that they would not receive all their TOPS payment this spring.

Dardenne added that TOPS could only be fully funded this year if the Legislature agreed to raise taxes a lot — over a half a billion dollars — in the next couple of months. Even then, the Edwards administration would likely prioritize filling a shortfall in the Medicaid program before the college scholarship program would receive the money it needs.

The TOPS program began in 1989 and, in brief, it pays college tuition to in-state universities for Louisiana students who score a certain percentage on the ACT and who maintain a certain GPA. The intent was to keep our kids here in the state. Through the years the requirements have been tweaked with the GPA requirement now at 2.5 and the ACT score now at 20.  You can read more specifics here.

Now, there are a couple of things to look at in those two paragraphs from NOLA: first, Dardenne said basically that those students already enrolled in the spring semester are on the hook for the balance of the tuition they had been told would be paid through their scholarship. Literally what he said was that the colleges would “absorb” the cost of the unpaid balance.  Recall that higher education throughout the state has already been decimated by Bobby Jindal and there is no room to “absorb” anything. Students across the state went to bed Thursday night anticipating bills for the balances to hit their mailboxes any moment.

The second thing to note from that NOLA quote is that Dardenne indicated that even if the money to fund TOPS was found, it would instead go toward funding Medicaid rather than satisfying the promised TOPS debt.

Further: Just a week before the TOPS blackmail, Edwards called for an emergency special session to deal with the state’s budget shortfall and noted that a plethora of tax increases are on the table, to include:

Income tax hikes

Cigarette tax hikes

Sales tax hikes on leased property and some services

Business utility tax hikes

Alcohol tax hikes

Taxes on AirBnB and anyone else who rents out a spare room

Taxes on the oil and gas industry

In essence, what John Bel Edwards has done is use emotional blackmail on the students and families of this state for the purpose of raising taxes on everything he possibly can. Families went to sleep Thursday night in serious distress over the financial future of their child’s college education. It’s not that these people don’t want to get student loans or work their way through college – most would have been more than willing to do so, but the TOPS program had been promised to them and they scheduled every high school course with the understanding of what was required of them to earn this scholarship.  For the governor to threaten to pull the rug out from under their feet is unconscionable.

And so, the next day, word comes down that miraculously money has been found to fund TOPS through the rest of this spring semester, but next year? Not so much.  Considerations to continue the program suggest a required ACT score of 28 to earn the scholarship and cutting the funding from $250 million to $60 million – about 80% of the current scholarships would be eliminated.

As if emotional blackmail of our students wasn’t enough, Governor Edwards addressed the state on television to explain the crisis and his actions and he said that student athletes are also in danger.

Yes, he poked the sacred cow of LSU football.

He really went there.

As I mentioned earlier, if the legislature fails to act and we are forced to proceed with these cuts, the LSU Ag Center and parish extension offices in every parish, and Pennington Biomedical Research Center will close by April 1st and the LSU main campus in Baton Rouge will run out of money after April 30th, as will the Health Sciences Center in Shreveport and LSU Eunice. There is no money left for payroll after those dates. The Southern University System, and University of Louisiana System, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System are in the same boat: without legislators approving new revenue this special session, some campuses will be forced to declare financial bankruptcy, which would include massive layoffs and the cancellation of classes.

If you are a student attending one of these universities, it means that you will receive a grade of incomplete, many students will not be able to graduate and student athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester. That means you can say farewell to college football next fall.

The text of the speech can be found here.

You can only imagine the hysteria that caused. It seemed for a few moments there that we would totally implode. Never mind the kids’ scholarships!  Never mind the cuts to the New Opportunity Waiver program which helps families with developmentally disabled children, we can’t survive without football!

At the very least this damages recruiting efforts.  Who would want to sign with a university that may not have a program?

Edwards pushed every single button he could to incite fear and panic throughout the state.  Yes, it’s a real problem. We are broke.  But on the same day he also eliminated the work requirement from food stamps. Previously, recipients had to work twenty hours a week or be enrolled in a federally approved job training program.  Not anymore.

And so it didn’t take long for the recall talk to start.

There is a Facebook group, Recall John Bel Edwards, which currently has about 5,500 members. There is a Change.org petition to recall the governor established solely for the purpose of monitoring numbers and interest in a formal recall; this petition has over 14,000 signatures so far.  Over a million voters would have to sign a formal recall petition.

The bottom line is that the state is now in panic mode. Edwards said in his speech that these cuts “are not scare tactics. This is reality…” but people are scared.  Everywhere I’ve been over the past few days, you hear subdued and worried conversations about the cuts. People are angry that entitlement programs are being expanded while education is being cut.  People are angry at the emotional blackmail that if we don’t pressure our representatives to vote for the new taxes, everything will be cut. People are angry that there’s no talk of the billions in state contracts that will remain untouched.

State Treasurer John Kennedy gave the Republican response after Governor Edwards’s speech and he declared that we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. He rightly pointed out that these tax increases will wreck our fragile economy. Kennedy said he has sent over 400 ideas to the governor’s office to cut spending rather than raise taxes. In his speech, he listed six of those, which included auditing Medicaid fraud which currently exists to the tune of about $900 million dollars. He also suggested revising Medicaid so that patients stop going to the emergency room for things like acne or to see if they need glasses, or other such minor concerns that could be better handled in a doctor’s office. Kennedy also suggested cutting the statutory dedications and the 19,000 consultants currently on our payroll. He noted also that 22% of the managers in government manage only one person.

While everyone acknowledges that Jindal’s smoke and mirrors method of balancing the budget got us into this mess, nobody is willing to concede that sacrificing higher education and blackmailing our students and student athletes is a good plan. Neither is taxing everything. Republicans are going to be more willing to work with Edwards if he will at least consider cutting some of the entitlements and slashing some of the excessive spending in government.

These are dark days in Louisiana.  The special session convened yesterday and we are waiting with high anxiety to see the outcome.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.