I have done a number of posts on Bobby Jindal’s political calculations and their impact on public higher education in Louisiana, and I am planning several more posts on the ongoing budget issues in the state.
But I have just come across a news item that has left me scratching my head.
But, first, here a thumbnail overview of what I have covered in previously posts about the state’s budget woes. Over his two terms as governor, Jindal has been cutting taxes in Louisiana and reducing appropriations to public colleges and universities, as well as other public institutions, in good times and bad. The state’s is very dependent on the oil and gas industries for much of its revenue, and when energy prices were high, Jindal decided that the state could give still further tax breaks to the industry. Well, now that energy prices are down, the state is facing an enormous budget gap.
Worse, because Jindal has his eye on the Republican presidential nomination and is banking of his reputation as an anti-tax and otherwise thoroughly Far Right ideologue, he has threatened to veto any legislation that increases any taxes in order to plug the budget gap. So, barring any sort of tax increase, the state will need to cut at least $1.6 billion from its annual appropriations, with $400-$500 million of that coming from the appropriations for public colleges and universities.
If those cuts are implemented, nine campuses—including technical and community colleges and regional campuses of LSU—will be forced to close. Moreover, the administration at the main campus of LSU in Baton Rouge has indicated that it has contingency plans to file for bankruptcy protection and that as many as 20%-25% of its faculty may need to be furloughed. Under such circumstances, it should be obvious that many academic programs will have to be eliminated or severely contracted. One of the latest statements from the university administration includes the following: “Under the current circumstances and due to the continued unpredictably of our state budget, we believe this is the responsible thing to do, and we will reevaluate the offering once the state’s financial picture becomes clearer.”
So, it is surprising—no, actually astonishing—that in the midst of this fiscal crisis, which has been building throughout Jindal’s terms as governor, the university is proceeding with the construction of an $85 million “leisure project” that includes a “lazy river” water feature shaped like the university’s acronym, an “outdoor adventure center,” a rope-climbing course and a 21,000-square-foot sun deck.
When the project was announced, Laurie Braden, the Director of University Recreation, asserted: “I will put it up against any other collegiate recreational facility in the country when we are done because we will be the benchmark for the next level.”
Honestly, for $85 million it ought to be a waterpark on Mars.
Even worse, the university, a spokesperson for the university attempted to disconnect the initiation of this “project” from the budget crisis by stating: “The funds for the project come directly from the student fee and can only be used for the project. Similar to donations to the university or funds from the state for capital projects, these types of funds can’t be shifted to fill in budget holes or be used in another way.”
We have all heard that sort of case from our own administrations to deflect criticism of all sorts of dubious spending choices. But LSU’s administration could have taken a page from Jindal’s own political playbook. He has so routinely reallocated funds budgeted for “special projects” to cover woefully underfunded state institutions and basic services that last year Louisiana voters finally had enough of it and voted for a constitutional amendment forcing him to direct funds routinely allocated for but seldom spent on shoreline restoration to that purpose.
In any case, whatever the legal restrictions on the use of these monies, proceeding with the construction of this project at this time is asinine—certainly from a public relations standpoint but also for many, many other reasons that should be obvious to anyone with even half a brain.