Letting Go in Louisiana

Louisiana lawmakers wanted more authority over the state's top higher education official. Now, some want to give it back.

May 30, 2014

Louisiana lawmakers may vote to give up their formal influence over the hiring and payment of the state’s higher education chief. A four-year-old effort to assert their authority over the commissioner has caused complaints of too much legislative meddling and fears the state will be unable to recruit a top candidate for the job, which is now open.

In 2010, state lawmakers backed a new law giving themselves more authority over the commissioner, a job that oversees the state’s four higher ed systems. At the time, lawmakers were upset that Louisiana’s then-Commissioner of Higher Education, Sally Clausen, had quietly maneuvered to begin drawing a pension while keeping her job, enriching herself amid steep budget cuts in the state.

The law now requires the commissioner to be confirmed by the Senate, and gives a joint legislative committee final say over the commissioner’s pay.

Before, the state’s Board of Regents, to which the commissioner reports, had control over the commissioner’s hiring and pay.

The heavy legislative authority over a board appointee is unusual if not unique among state higher education chiefs. And while state senates often have control over gubernatorial appointees, it is also unusual to give lawmakers final say over board-appointed positions. In Louisiana, higher ed board members need to be confirmed by the Senate, but college and university presidents do not. The state’s K-12 schools chief also needs Senate confirmation.

Now, in a bill pending final approval as early as Friday, lawmakers are looking to give up their unique authority and return to the way things were four years ago, with the Board of Regents in charge.

That’s a good idea, said Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit policy center in Colorado that has advised Louisiana officials in the past.

He said state higher ed chiefs need to have some independence from the state’s political leadership.

“Their ability to maintain trust with the higher ed community depends on their ability to be seen not simply as agents of the political leadership,” McGuinness said.

He said it’s not unusual for regents to run higher ed chief hires by state lawmakers, but Louisiana’s decision to give formal power to the Senate is unique among states.

While senators have said their approval is merely perfunctory, it may not be, said W. Clinton (Bubba) Rasberry Jr., chairman of the Louisiana Board of Regents.

“They all say, ‘It doesn’t mean anything, we’re going to confirm who you bring’ – but you can’t trust that,” he said.

Rasberry is lobbying for the bill to return full authority to the regents.

Indeed, in 2010, lawmakers torpedoed the regents’ plan to hire the veteran higher ed administrator Tom Layzell as interim commissioner after Clausen’s fraught departure. Lawmakers couldn’t agree to pay Layzell his asking price. So the regents worked around the legislature and hired him as a senior consultant.

Then, the legislative restrictions may have diminished the pool of applicants for the full-time job and caused headaches for the candidate the regents eventually settled on, Jim Purcell.

For one reason or another, Purcell’s legislative approval got dragged out, but eventually he was confirmed. But his tenure ended this year when he said he didn’t want to renew his contract amid fights with Governor Bobby Jindal.

Observers and insiders alike worry Louisiana is losing good candidates to replace Purcell because of uncertainty caused by requiring Senate confirmation. That's aside from any conflicts an appointee might have with Jindal.

The legislature doesn’t meet again until the spring, so if the regents picked a commissioner this summer, the person could be on the job before they were confirmed, unsure of whether they would get to keep the position or the chosen salary. Some also fear that the commissioner would be conflicted about who they report to: the regents or state lawmakers.

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a statewide nonprofit group that is lobbying the legislature to give up all say over the commissioner’s post, said any version of legislative oversight creates an awkward situation for an incoming commissioner.

“If you think about it, who is going to want to go through those two hoops: get your salary negotiated in public and then move down there, maybe from some other state, and go through that whole process and maybe or maybe not get confirmed?” Erwin said.

State Senator Conrad Appel, chairman of the Senate’s education committee, introduced the bill that would strip the Senate of the right to confirm the higher ed commissioner and would remove the joint legislative committee’s authority over the commissioner’s salary. The Senate passed a version of the bill that gave up the salary-setting authority but still made the job require Senate confirmation.

The House on Wednesday returned to the spirit of Appel’s original draft and passed a bill that totally abdicated legislative oversight. Now, it’s up to the Senate to decide what it wants to do: give up all say over who is the commissioner or negotiate with the House.

“The Senate wants confirmation, but it would be very difficult – it reduces our market,” Rasberry said.

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Ry Rivard

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