Foster Campell

Louisiana Public Service Commissioner

Campbell to Bobby Jindal: Hands off School Trust Fund

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One of the fundamental duties of the Governor of Louisiana is to pay the bills. Highways must be paved, state troopers and state employees must be paid, and state hospitals and universities must serve our citizens. State Government is a $26-billion-per-year enterprise.
Declines in state revenue have prompted some Governors, including Bobby Jindal, to propose unsound fiscal measures. Bossier City’s own Buddy Roemer, Governor from 1988 to 1992, raided protected trust funds to balance the books during his administration.
One of those funds was BEEF, the Bossier Educational Excellence Fund. As a state senator from Bossier Parish I started BEEF in 1985 with $500,000 in yearly State tax revenue from Louisiana Downs. The money was invested on behalf of the Bossier Parish School Board in a special fund in the State Treasury, where the principal was protected and only the interest was available for classroom enhancements in Bossier public schools.
Gov. Roemer emptied BEEF during a budget crisis. It took me two years, but I finally restored the fund. BEEF, now supplemented with casino tax revenues, has a current principal of $30,400,000 yielding interest each year for early childhood education, computer learning and other vital classroom needs.
When Attorney General Richard Ieyoub sued the big tobacco companies in the 1990s and won a $4-billion settlement for the State, I persuaded the Legislature to allocate $1 billion of the settlement to establish a statewide version of BEEF. Louisiana’s “Educational Excellence Fund” was later approved by voters by a 70-percent margin in 1999. It now yields interest payments averaging $224,000 per school district each year. EEF is educationally sound and fiscally prudent.
Forward to Bobby Jindal, another Governor with a budget crisis. Despite his stern lectures to the President about federal overspending, Gov. Jindal has stuffed billions of dollars in Obama Stimulus funding into his last two State budgets. Yet he is still $1.6 billion short for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Cornered by circumstances and his own promises, Gov. Jindal has proposed to raid the Millennium Trust Fund that incorporates EEF. He wants to divert $43 million annually that otherwise would go into the fund and dedicate it to TOPS, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. TOPS gets a share of the tobacco settlement now, but most of its fiscal support comes from the General Fund.
As the author of the Educational Excellence Fund, and as one who opposed Gov. Roemer’s raid on BEEF in the 1980s, I felt the need to speak up. I wrote all 144 legislators in May to say that Gov. Jindal’s proposal to raid the Millennium Trust Fund was bad fiscal policy, educationally unsound and hypocritical.
Why hypocritical? When Louisiana sued the tobacco companies in the 1990s, Bobby Jindal was Gov. Mike Foster’s secretary of Health and Human Services. Like Gov. Foster, Secretary Jindal opposed the tobacco lawsuit. Here was our state’s top health official standing with Big Tobacco when he should have stood with those of us trying to reimburse State hospitals for treating people with heart disease and other smoking-related illnesses.
Now that Gov. Jindal wants tobacco money to get out of a budget jam, the hypocrisy of his position is clear. It is like his harping on the evils of federal spending on the one hand and taking federal money with the other hand to prop up his budgets.
Aside from the hypocrisy, the raid on the Millennium Trust means sacrificing the Educational Excellence Fund so that Gov. Jindal can have an easier time balancing a State budget that he criticizes as too big.
Raiding a K-12 trust fund to pay for college scholarships is like building a house from the roof down. It is educationally unsound. Our latest test results show that one out of every three students in Louisiana public schools is performing at less than grade level. Our state must build the educational foundation of our young people well before they reach college age.
It is wrong for the Governor to minimize this blatant raid on the Millennium Trust Fund by saying it only caps the growth of the fund. By not letting the fund grow the Governor is destroying it. And this is poor fiscal policy because he wants to count this money now, months before voters are even asked to approve this raid as an amendment to the State Constitution.
TOPS is a good program, but last year only 42 percent of Louisiana high-school graduates qualified for a TOPS scholarship. The Educational Excellence Fund serves ALL children in grades K-12 throughout Louisiana, even those in parochial and other schools.
Adding insult to injury, Gov. Jindal has invoked the Bible in a weak attempt to justify his raid on the Millennium Trust Fund. He said keeping the trust whole was like “burying our talents in the ground.”
As politicians we should be careful quoting the Bible. In another part of the Book of Matthew Jesus expresses contempt for hypocrites, calling them “serpents.”