House speaker opens door to tuition changes

Special to the Herald-Guide
November 15, 2013 at 9:26 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By Jeremy Alford and John Maginnis
Legislation granting university boards more control over tuition didn’t make it through this year’s regular session, but House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said he’s willing to give it another chance in 2014.

In an op-ed written exclusively for LaPolitics.com, Kleckley wrote that he supports such an initiative because it would bring Louisiana to the Southern Regional Average. In political terms, it would also allow legislators to withdraw from the debate; right now they have to muster a two-thirds vote to increase tuition.

“In the past, I have supported tuition freedom to raise post-secondary tuition to the Southern Regional Average in Louisiana without the required two-thirds vote of the House and Senate,” Kleckley wrote. “We are the only state that has the two-thirds vote requirement.”

Of course, there are strings attached. Kleckley is of the opinion that the authority should only be granted if universities are willing to up their collective game.

“I believe that we have politically suppressed our tuition, which has been harmful to post-secondary education,” he added. “However, while I support tuition autonomy, that authority should only be granted if colleges and universities are willing to provide greater accomplishments in exchange.”

But before he’s willing to lead the charge, Kleckley wants “one loud, clear, unified voice” from university heads around the state. In an earlier interview, Kleckley said he had already contacted Dr. F. King Alexander, president of the LSU system; Dr. Ronald Mason, president of the Southern system; Dr. Sandra Woodley president of the UL system; and Jim Purcell, commissioner of higher education, to tell them he’d be the “point man” on a bill next session if they got together on the specifics.

In his op-ed, Kleckley also left the door open for possible changes to the TOPS scholarship program in 2014.

“We must continue to protect TOPS and reward students who work hard and give them the ability to get a quality higher education,” he wrote. “At the same time we must find a way to better manage TOPS to make sure it is financially sustainable.”Tulane scholarship fix soughtSince it was Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Franklinton, whose award of a Tulane scholarship to another politician’s son rekindled that sensitive issue, it’s fitting that he take the lead in reforming the controversial program, once again.After The Advocate reported that Ritchie had given a one-year legislative scholarship, worth about $43,000, to the son of District Attorney Walter Reed of St. Tammany Parish, Ritchie began talking with a number of his colleagues about setting some uniform policies.

The scholarships date back to an 1888 arrangement that exempts the New Orleans university from paying sales taxes.Also, according to Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, Tulane president Scott Cowen is working on revising policies for the scholarships from an administrative standpoint.

The program became a major controversy in the 1990s when it was revealed that some legislators were giving their scholarships to each other’s children. Former Rep. Johnny Jackson, a New Orleans Democrat, even gave one to himself to attend Tulane.

Legislators then prohibited the scholarships from going to any of their children, but it remains permissible to award them to the offspring of other elected officials.

Meanwhile, both Alario and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, are standing by the decisions of House Clerk Butch Speer and Senate Secretary Glenn Koepp to not comply with public records requests by The Advocate and WWL-TV. The media outlets want to review the student application forms, which disclose if the applicants are related to an elected official.

Ritchie disagreed.

“The form ought to be a public record,” he said. “Let’s go ahead and open it up and let everybody see them.”

Some legislators, like Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, want to end the program altogether and have Tulane start paying taxes. PAC money could buoy conservative newcomerAlthough a great deal of media coverage has focused on the fact that the Senate Conservatives Fund overlooked Congressman Bill Cassidy in order to endorse fellow Republican Rob Maness, the real story could be the amount of money that could potentially be steered to the tea party favorite.

The fund’s Super PAC has collected more than $5.6 million for current cycle, with $2.1 million generated in September alone. It also spent in excess of $1 million supporting Republican Ted Cruz of Texas in his successful Senate campaign last year.

Should Maness, a retired Air Force colonel from Madisonville who has reported raising $100,000, manage to capture any real momentum or draw serious press coverage, those familiar with the Super PAC say a six-figure injection isn’t unlikely, especially with some 3,300 financial supporters living in Louisiana. Whether the endorsement can help him over-take Cassidy as the prime challenger is another matter, but it’s the notable achievement in his campaign so far.

Both are hoping to overcome the re-election campaign being mounted by incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat.  Republican party split plays out in congressional raceSaturday’s runoff election in the 5th Congressional District will be closely watched for what the outcome tells about the current divisions within the Republican Party in Washington.

In other states, intra-party rivalries between mainstream Republicans and tea party conservatives are settled in GOP primaries. But Louisiana’s non-partisan open primary—sometimes called a jungle primary—resulted in two Republicans, state Sen. Neil Riser of Columbia and newcomer Vance McAllister of Swartz, landing in the runoff. If Democrats go strong for one or the other, they could choose the winner.

Some saw those pieces starting to fall in place with the endorsement of McAllister by the third-place finisher, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a Democrat. The 15,000 votes Mayo received about covers the difference between Riser’s 33,000 and McAllister’s 18,000.

In all, about 31,000 votes were cast for four Democrats in the primary, out of more than 103,000. Yet observers question how many of those voters, particularly African-Americans, will return to the polls in the Nov. 16 runoff. The 22 percent overall turnout broke down to 26 percent of whites registered in the district and 15 percent of blacks, according to an analysis by JMC Enterprises.

McAllister also was endorsed by Public Service Commissioner Clyde Holloway of Forest Hill, the Republican who ran fourth.

Despite that he is considered the frontrunner, Riser went on the attack this week, accusing McAllister of switching his position on the Affordable Care Act. The ad shows a chameleon changing colors as headlines label McAllister as softer on his opposition to the ACA than is Riser. With few chameleons in northeast Louisiana, locals are calling it the “lizard ad.”

McAllister campaign aide Josh Robinson took the attack as a sign that Riser is trying to stop his opponent’s momentum. “If you’re in the lead, you don’t shoot at the guy behind you,” said Robinson.They Said It“I don’t endorse many politicians. But Chris Christie is different.”—Shaquille O’Neal, in a campaign ad for the New Jersey governor“I don’t know yet and I think it’s too early.” —Gov. Bobby Jindal on running for president, on Fox NewsFor more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics.com or follow Maginnis and Alford on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.




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