BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Six Republican state lawmakers said Monday that Gov. Bobby Jindal is trying to pressure the Board of Regents to fire the state's top higher education leader.
Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell has been at odds with the GOP governor over the depth of budget cuts to public colleges and what that slashing means to higher education.
Reps. Brett Geymann, Cameron Henry, Lance Harris, Jim Morris, Rogers Pope and John Schroder issued a statement Monday defending Purcell.
The lawmakers, who have criticized the governor's budgeting tactics, condemned what they call the Jindal administration's attempt "to politically influence" the Regents to oust Purcell.
"This episode represents the latest in a string of exceptionally poor decisions by the governor and his staff," Morris, R-Oil City, said in a statement. "Having a staffer attempt to influence an independent academic board is just not acceptable."
The chairman of the Board of Regents, Clinton "Bubba" Rasberry, said it's no secret the Jindal administration is unhappy with Purcell. He said the governor's office has made that clear to its appointees.
"I've gotten messages, yes. I've certainly been made to understand they're unhappy with Dr. Purcell," said Rasberry, a Regents board member since 2003 and a current Jindal appointee.
Jindal's appointed all but the student representative on the 16-member board.
Asked if the administration was trying to get Purcell fired, Jindal spokesman Sean Lansing said in a statement, "We think he's done a poor job, but that is up to the Board of Regents."
Purcell was hired two years ago as higher education commissioner, with a $275,000-a-year contract that runs through March 2014. He previously had been director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.
Before and during Purcell's tenure as Louisiana's higher education chief, Jindal and lawmakers have cut nearly $650 million in state funding from the public colleges budget. While some of that has been offset with tuition hikes, at least $260 million hasn't been, according to Regents data.
The governor's office has objected to Purcell's characterization of the cuts and disputes his figures.
Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said it's unacceptable to have agency leaders removed because the governor doesn't like the information they're providing.
"They've got to be able to come forward and be honest with us. They've got to. They shouldn't be able to feel like they can't speak honestly," Geymann said.
Jindal's budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would further strip state dollars from higher education, but the administration said the budget contains no reduction in funding for colleges because tuition increases will cover the lost state funding.
"Our budget protects higher education and makes no cuts to campuses," Lansing said.
Purcell recently disagreed with that Jindal administration claim and has raised concerns about the sources of financing — property sales, legal settlements and other one-time pools of cash — that the governor proposes to use in next year's budget for higher education.
Asked if he was satisfied with Purcell's performance, Rasberry said, "From my perspective, the numbers and the analysis of the budget that Dr. Purcell has done I perceive to be the truth."
The six Republican lawmakers who said they believe the governor's office was trying to oust Purcell disagree with Jindal's use of piecemeal financing to pay for ongoing state expenses and programs, like the governor's proposal for higher education.
Jindal administration leaders said they use the patchwork funding to avoid unnecessary cuts to colleges and health care services.