June 1, 2012 06:15
Regardless of whatever stats, rankings or carefully shaded reports the Jindal administration puts out regarding job creation or the state of the state's economy, please know that, in truth, Louisiana is on a high-speed-rail collision course with global economic irrelevance. Regardless of whatever stats, rankings or carefully shaded reports the Jindal administration puts out regarding job creation or the state of the state's economy, please know that, in truth, Louisiana is on a high-speed-rail collision course with global economic irrelevance.

Make no mistake, it's fabulous that Louisiana, under Gov. Bobby Jindal, has spent hundreds of millions of economic development dollars to sustain chicken farmers, enable the manufacturing of high-end toilet paper, land international industrial companies, leverage cheap natural gas to attract manufacturing facilities and provide any incentive necessary to develop the movie and nascent digital media industries. Without question, each and every win by LED's Stephen Moret has been great for this state.

It's also wonderful that Louisiana, under Jindal, has moved hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury to personal bank accounts and corporate balance sheets thanks to an unprecedented level of tax cuts over the past five years. Even better for the average reader of this publication, nearly every one of these cuts has almost exclusively benefited the wealthiest of this state's residents and business owners.

Economic development wins and massive tax cuts have buoyed the state economy during the national recession, made Louisiana appear more business- friendly and, without question, earned the ballyhoo of the suddenly authoritative Site Selection magazine.

Yet all of that good news is effectively eradicated by the financial carnage that's taken place in higher education under Jindal's watch. The past four years have seen Jindal and the Legislature slash $360 million in higher education funding, $92 million from LSU, the state's supposed flagship institution.

The result of these nine budget cuts has been a brain drain of campus talent, the elimination or reduction of critical academic programs, and a general sense of despair on campuses from Ruston to Lafayette to Baton Rouge.

The governor's supporters will tell you the cuts aren't nearly as dramatic as those of us in the media and academia portray them. They say allowing universities to hike tuition and fees has offset many of the cuts. If the only measurement is dollars, then they have a point. Just as those who argue tuition at Louisiana universities has for decades been far too low are correct. Raising tuition is the right thing to do, but only when done in conjunction with proper funding from the state.

Simply transferring the financial responsibility from the state to the student creates a situation where the student is paying more for a degree that's worth less. How is that right?

Consider that Louisiana pays more than $8,000 per student annually to educate a child at the K-12 level, but contributes less than $1,000 per student toward higher education.

Incredibly, the worst has yet to hit college campuses. What the governor and legislators are talking about now is a budget that will hack an additional $225 million from higher education, $43 million at LSU's Baton Rouge campus. To be blunt, higher education and this state can't survive with cuts that severe.

Blame what likely will be a death knell for higher education on fiscal hawks not wanting to use one-time dollars for recurring expenses in the state budget. Blame several universities teetering on the edge of bankruptcy on the impact of tax cuts this state really couldn't afford to approve finally catching up to Jindal and legislators. Blame record levels of corporate welfare or blame the ending of federal money post-Katrina. Blame whatever one wants, but there's no escaping that higher education is collapsing on Jindal's watch.

How much longer will it be before many of the companies this state is paying so handsomely to locate here find it's impossible to hire qualified workers? How much longer will we accept a state that ranks 46th in the nation for education attainment?

It's clear our state leaders have no stomach for restructuring higher education, but do they also have to kill our economic future?

At a time where knowledge, research and creativity have never been more economically important, Jindal and the Legislature are systematically destroying the very institutions that give birth to knowledge, research and creativity.

So while tax breaks and corporate incentives are great, there's no tax break or corporate incentive big enough to overcome stupid.

JR Ball is executive editor of Baton Rouge's Business Report, where this column first appeared. Email him at JR@businessreport.com to comment on this column.

Read the flipping paper