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Louisiana’s Last-Place Finish Bayou State continues to fall short when it comes to spending on higher education.

Louisiana’s Last-Place Finish Bayou State continues to fall short when it comes to spending on higher education.

By Scott Dyer

Nobody knows better than Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster about the Bayou State’s tradition of skimping when it comes to state spending on higher education. Foster has spent most of his six years as governor trying to change the status quo.
“It’s a constant struggle to appropriate money for education in this state, mainly because it doesn’t have that much of a constituency,” says Foster, who enrolled at age 70 as a part-time student at historically Black Southern University’s law school.
Yet Foster says he is convinced that education is the key to Louisiana’s ability to lift itself out of a cycle of poverty that currently afflicts one in five residents.
A recent survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that 22 percent of Louisianans live below the poverty line, which is currently an annual income of $17,135 for a family of four. At the same time, Louisiana ranks last in the South in state funding per full-time student. According to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), Louisiana spent an average of $3,803 in state appropriations per full-time college student in 1999-2000, the worst of the 15 Southern states. West Virginia was 14th in state appropriation per student at $3,954, and Alabama ranked 13th at $4,871.
Donald Vandal, finance chief for the Louisiana Board of Regents, says Louisiana consistently rates at the bottom of all Southern colleges and universities in terms of state spending.
“For the last few years, we have been consistently down at the bottom in funding in every category of college or university,” Vandal says.
As a result, Louisiana faculty salaries were the lowest in the South at $46,874 that same year, according to the SREB.
The only other Southern states where faculty pay averaged under $50,000 were West Virginia with $48,514 and Arkansas with $49,442.
An attempt to increase state funding to education through tax reform was shot down last fall by wary voters who had just seen a former governor, Edwin Edwards, convicted on corruption charges.
State Rep. Vic Stelly, D-Lake Charles, authored the plan to scrap Louisiana’s 4-cent sales tax on food and utilities and replace it with a higher income tax on the wealthy.
Stelly says he encountered plenty of voter cynicism as he stumped the state.
“It’s a lack of trust,” Stelly says. “I made over a hundred talks on this plan, and every time I would come across the same cynical questions. You know, like ‘You got guys in state government going to jail, and you want us to give you more money?’ “
Even the governor’s support wasn’t enough to keep the Stelly plan from going down by nearly a 2-1 margin last November.
Also supporting the plan were African American leaders, who saw the tax revamp as a way to bolster underfunded state colleges and a tax benefit for the poor.
Dr. Edward Jackson, chancellor of historically Black Southern University, was one of the most vocal proponents of the Stelly plan. Jackson noted that his campus is in desperate need of extra funding to attract and retain qualified faculty members. In January, only two months after the Stelly plan was shot down, Jackson persuaded his governing board to raise tuition by $125 a semester to help provide pay raises. And in March, the governor rebounded with an alternate plan to raise casino taxes in order to generate an estimated $32.5 million a year for faculty pay raises.
Foster says if he hadn’t pushed casino taxes this spring, college faculty would have not seen any pay hike this year. Critics warn that the fix is only temporary, noting that the long-term solution is a total revamp of the state’s tax system to become less dependent on sales taxes. And in the meantime, Stelly says he’s working on another tax revamp plan to possibly take to Louisiana voters next year. 

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