BATON ROUGE, La. — When it was created last year, a $40 million incentive fund to pay for college programs that fill high-demand jobs in Louisiana was hailed as critical to both higher education and the state’s workforce needs.
Now, with the state grappling with deep budget problems, Gov. Bobby Jindal is proposing to strip financing from the fund that only months ago he described as among his top priorities.
At Jindal’s urging, lawmakers set up the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund to link higher education money directly to projected workforce demand. They steered a mix of tax dollars, construction funding and other money to the fund in this year’s budget.
College leaders praised the effort, saying it was one of the state’s most significant higher education investments in years, a rare infusion of cash for campuses that had seen their state financing cut by hundreds of millions since 2008. Schools had to work with private businesses to get a funding match of at least 20 percent.
“We view the WISE Fund as one of the most forward-thinking public policy efforts that this state has seen in a long time,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
But with Louisiana facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall in the 2015-16 fiscal year that begins July 1, Jindal is considering cuts of $300 million to $400 million to public colleges. And WISE is on the chopping block.
The budget proposal being talked about by the Jindal administration “guts WISE completely,” said LSU System President F. King Alexander. “We’re trying to hang onto it.”
The governor’s budget recommendations are due to lawmakers by Feb. 27, and the Legislature will craft a final version of the spending plan in the session that begins April 13. Legislative leaders are looking for ways to stop deep higher education cuts.
Though the WISE Fund money wasn’t certain to appear year after year, many campuses intended to use it to hire faculty and pay salaries. Some campuses were paying for student scholarships. The community and technical college system poured its money into training programs such as welding, pipefitting, electrical work and petroleum technology.
In some instances, plans are being reconsidered because of the funding uncertainty.
As Jindal opened the 2014 legislative session, he told lawmakers that Louisiana’s biggest challenge was making sure it has enough workers to fill the jobs his administration has helped attract to the state. He pitched the WISE Fund as a key way to address the worker shortage.
“Economists have recently said they have never seen an industrial expansion like the one under way in Louisiana but have also warned that we must do a better job training skilled workers that will be needed to fill the demand for jobs,” Jindal said, signing the bill in June.
Seven months later, the state’s financial gaps appear likely to make the WISE Fund a one-year shot of money for campuses, rather than a recurring source of revenue.