Capitol Views: Panel OKs merging LSUS with La. Tech; drug testing for welfare recipients clears committee
The major higher education bill of the session, to merge LSU Shreveport into Louisiana Tech, heads to the House floor after passing the Education Committee today.
Pushed by civic and business leaders in Shreveport and backed by the Board of Regents and the University of Louisiana System, House Bill 964 was approved, 14-4, over the objections of LSU System leaders.
Later today, the House will debate the session's other big education bill: a constitutional amendment to strengthen the Board of Regents' budgetary powers over the other management boards.
LSUS supporters promoted the merger as a way of saving higher education in the state's third largest metropolitan area by stemming the school's declining enrollment.
"My entire life I have seen LSUS basically just subside," said Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport. "Not only are we in that death spiral, but the coup de grāce is not far from coming."
The bill's author, Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, called the measure "almost a local bill," stating, "People from North Louisiana have come and said this is what we want to do."
He also framed the merger within the state's fiscal problems, calling it a way "we can reduce costs to taxpayers and elevate higher education standards." Fannin was challenged on that point by committee members who cited transition costs of over $1 million and indeterminate long-term savings.
Fannin answered, "Sometimes you have to spend money to save money," adding that savings would come through combining administrative positions.
Leading the opposition was the old, but new, face of LSU, Interim President Bill Jenkins, the former president who came out of retirement after last week's firing of system President John Lombardi. Jenkins restated LSU's position that it has been the Board of Regents, not the system office, that has denied new programs to the Shreveport school.
The bill's next hurdle will be higher: a two-thirds required majority in the House, where last year's effort to merge the University of New Orleans and Southern University New Orleans failed.
—The perennial effort to require random drug testing to one-fifth of welfare recipients heads for another debate on the House floor, after clearing the House Health Committee today.
Under HB 380 by Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, one in five applying for the payments from the Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program would undergo a drug test. Those who fail would have benefits suspended for 90 days while they seek treatment. If they fail a second test, they would not be able to apply again for assistance for one year.
About 3,500 adults receive FITAP payments averaging $192 per month, according to testimony from the Department of Health and Hospitals.
"They are taking that money intended for kids and using it for illicit activities," Mack said.
Mack was challenged by Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, to show how the current system, in which all applicants are screened by interview, is not working. He answered that it was the top issue raised in his election campaign in his rural-suburban district that is 94% black.
When Jackson pointed out that affordable drug treatment might not be available to welfare recipients, Mack answered, "In life, when you make decisions, there are consequences."
In the last term, the Legislature debated but never passed the same bill sponsored by former Rep. John LaBruzzo, who was back today to support Mack's bill.
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