Monday, May 27, 2024

Legislators approve construction budget, advance college fee autonomy

by BIZ Magazine

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana House of Representatives on Thursday unanimously approved a multiyear state construction budget.

The House signed off on Senate amendments approved Wednesday and sent House Bill 2 to the governor’s desk. The bill calls for spending about $2.1 billion in cash revenue, including state surplus dollars, federal funds, bond proceeds and other sources.

For projects that would require borrowed funds, the budget is $3 million under the state’s bond capacity, said Rep. Stuart Bishop, the Republican chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“It is possible that every bond project will get a line of credit,” said state Sen. Bret Allain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. “That hasn’t happened in a very long time.”

Bishop said House Bill 2 also sets aside more than $100 million in surplus dollars for a fund that could be used for more capital outlay projects or to shore up state finances in case of a shortfall during the next fiscal year. Lawmakers will consider setting up the fund on Monday, Bishop said.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards had proposed spending more of the surplus on roads, bridges and coastal restoration projects that are ready to move forward and would boost the economy amid the current uncertainty. Republicans pointed to that same uncertainty to justify saving more of the surplus than the state constitution requires.

Legislators approved the construction budget with more than two weeks left in the session, which could allow for time to override vetoes if Gov. John Bel Edwards strips out any of the projects.

In other legislative action Thursday, the House Education Committee advanced House Bill 26, which extends for one year the right of colleges and universities to set, and potentially increase, the fees they charge to students without legislative approval.

The Louisiana Legislature controls what its colleges and universities charge to a greater degree than other states, though in recent years it has allowed fee flexibility to allow higher education leaders to run their schools more like businesses amidst uncertain state funding.

After campuses were shut down as part of the effort to control the spread of COVID-19, schools gave students refunds for housing and food services, Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s higher education commissioner, said.

“This is a tool we’ve had for a number of years,” she said. “We’ve never abused it.”

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