Wednesday, 25 May 2011 11:10
Will Louisiana Gov. Jindal Win Merger Second Time Around?
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JindalLeading the effort of state and local officials and citizens to rise to the challenge of the rising river, Gov. Bobby Jindal burnishes his reputation as a master of disaster. While there is no politics to be played in the ongoing flood watch, the state's fixation on it served to distract attention from Jindal's legislative agenda taking on water at the Capitol.

His signature reform for higher education was lost last week when his ally in the effort, House Speaker Jim Tucker, gave up on passing a bill to merge the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans, in face of all-out opposition from the Legislative Black Caucus and the Southern community.

Winning a two-thirds vote on a change opposed by one third of the state appeared to be difficult yet doable when the governor first raised the issue earlier this year. He could cite the low enrollments and low graduation rates of two schools blocks apart, against a statewide backdrop of public dissatisfaction with duplicative governing systems and a surplus, compared to other states, of four-year universities. So why couldn't Jindal get it done?

His problems started before the bill was even filed when he ceded the moral high ground by his appointments to the Board of Regents of all whites and nearly all campaign contributors. Even some Republican legislators found that unfair and certainly unpolitic, for it provided the opening for former congressman Cleo Fields to bring suit challenging the constitutional legitimacy of the board that was to bless the consolidation plan.

Prospects brightened briefly for the governor once he got the matter before the Legislature, where his plan enjoyed near-unanimous support of the growing Republican majority. Yet for all the jaw-boning by Jindal and arm-twisting by his staff, they could not win over enough white Democrats and independents to achieve a supermajority. No vote was taken, but the speaker claims he fell only two votes short, while Democrats say the gap was more like four.

A major difference maker was what Jindal lacked what every governor has used to keep legislators in line: both the carrot and the stick.

One Democrat concedes that three or four lawmakers would have crossed over had the governor offered them funding for local projects. In a beyond-lean budget absent, for the first time in memory, of members' earmarks, Jindal could not have granted three or four exceptions without inciting a riot on the floor.

What was worse for the governor was that, despite the racially charged environment, all the static was coming from the African-American side. Democrats say they heard quite loudly and clearly from their black constituents, but from white voters, almost nothing.

Somewhere along the way, most whites lost interest in the issue, particularly once it was determined that merging the two universities was not going to save any money and would cost an uncertain amount more. The governor's enthusiasm for re-aligning educational opportunities in New Orleans failed to spur a torrent of phone calls to lawmakers from back home. Weighing the impact of the college merger issue on voters this fall, House Democrats could only figure that whites would not remember and blacks would not forget.

With the merger bills goes any prospect for Gov. Jindal to re-order the governance of higher education, either through a single board or a single merger, in his first term. Substantive change could still come about through the so-called GRAD Act he signed last year, which, beginning next year, will cause rising admission requirements at four-year schools and, the idea goes, more lesser prepared freshmen starting at community colleges.

Ultimately, the number of governing boards and the number of universities do not matter as much as the number of college graduates, from both two-year and four-year schools. That improvement needs to be led from the bottom by the two underperforming universities, which is a message those campus leaders say they have gotten. If not, they might find themselves facing the merger issue again in a year or two, brought back by a re-elected governor, bearing a juicier carrot, a bigger stick and the resolve not to lose a second time.


by John Maginnis

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