BATON ROUGE, La. — Higher education leaders urged lawmakers Monday to maintain Gov. Bobby Jindal's plan for a new $40 million incentive fund to steer money to high-demand degree and job training programs.
The dollars are included in Jindal's 2014-15 budget recommendations for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But lawmakers in the House are questioning whether the state can afford the creation of a new program while state finances remain tight.
The Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, called the WISE Fund, would direct dollars to engineering, technology, research and other sought-after programs at Louisiana's four-year universities and community and technical colleges.
The Jindal administration has attracted billions of dollars in new investment, much of it in the petrochemical industry, but administration and higher education leaders say Louisiana needs to better prepare workers for the tens of thousands of jobs coming with those projects.
"Forty million is not enough to close the workforce gap, but it is a start and it is a really important start," Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, told the House Appropriations Committee.
LSU System President F. King Alexander said the WISE Fund helps the state tie economic development and higher education together more closely, to match degree programs to the jobs available to graduating students.
"The WISE Fund is critically important to us," said Monty Sullivan, the president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
Each campus wouldn't be guaranteed a slice of the money. To get the dollars, schools would have to work with private businesses and get a 20 percent funding match.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said lawmakers support the concept of directing more money to training that will help fill available jobs. But he said he's worried about forecasts that show Jindal's budget uses as much as $900 million in short-term financing sources that won't be on hand a year later.
The discussion came as the Appropriations Committee continued its agency-by-agency review of the governor's spending proposals for next year.
Jindal's budget includes $141.5 million in new money for higher education, though $88 million of that is from tuition hikes on students.
But after six years of slashing state funding to campuses, the governor is proposing to keep their state financing flat, while also creating the WISE Fund and adding $13 million in other new spending.
Higher education leaders said they need predictable state financing for their campuses, after $700 million in cuts since 2008.
"We do need a degree of stability. The swings that we have dealt with in the past are not going to help us meet the demands," Alexander said.
Southern University System President Ronald Mason said his system has been shrinking its business operations and reorganizing academic programs, but he said the budget cuts have been difficult.
"It's like you're running down the hall and the faster you run, the longer the hall gets," he said.