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Don't forget education reform


The annual legislative session begins next week with no apparent resolution to Gov. Bobby's Jindal's tax-swap conundrum. The governor is anxious to tackle the difficult issue of tax reform, and some of his ideas make perfect sense. We like his proposals to eliminate corporate income taxes and franchise fees (replacing them, in effect, with a much higher cigarette tax) and streamline the process for reporting and collecting sales taxes. Those are among the most oft-cited impediments to business development in Louisiana.

  At the same time, the governor seems "stuck on stuck" in his blind determination to eliminate individual income taxes — replacing them with significantly higher and broader sales taxes. Jindal is getting tons of pushback on his proposed sales tax hike, from virtually every political front. As of late last week, he hadn't yet gotten the message that that part of his plan is D.O.A. in the House of Representatives, where tax hikes must begin.

  The session that begins next week is a short one; it must end by June 6 — D-Day in more ways than one. In the short space of two months, the governor and lawmakers face daunting challenges. In addition to tax reform, Jindal and legislators must agree on an annual budget. The budget submitted by Jindal, like his tax plan, has drawn fire even from fellow Republicans. It proposes using "one-time money" and speculative revenues for important recurring expenses. Once again, Jindal has broken his campaign promise not to use one-time funds for annual expenditures; he appears headed for a record sixth straight year of mid-year budget cuts, which will be disastrous — again — for hospitals and higher education.

  Meanwhile, the governor needs to get education reform back on track. Lower courts have tossed new laws he backed last year to tighten teacher evaluation and tenure rules, give local school superintendents more autonomy and expand funding for his fledgling (and controversial) statewide voucher program. Lower courts declared all three initiatives unconstitutional on technical grounds. All are now pending before the Louisiana Supreme Court, where their fate is uncertain. The governor and lawmakers should revisit those issues this year and fix the technical glitches. On the matter of vouchers, they also should tighten the accountability provisions.

  Education reform doesn't end there, however. State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, wants to tighten accountability rules for public colleges and universities as well as for early childhood education. Appel says he will explore ways to give colleges more freedom to set tuition rates in exchange for tougher accountability measures. He also would tie a portion of state funding to higher-ed outcomes. As state support for public institutions of higher learning continues to dwindle, it's only logical that public colleges and universities seek more freedom to set tuition levels. There's a catch, of course: the TOPS scholarship program provides state support to higher education via tuition payments for qualifying students. Because the state is on the hook for TOPS awards, there should be reasonable limits on tuition hikes that universities are allowed to implement without legislative approval.

  The bottom line is that tax reform will have lots of competition for lawmakers' — and citizens' — attention this year. We urge the governor and lawmakers not to forget about education reform.

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