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Louisiana lawmakers balk at Layzell's salary

BATON ROUGE, La. — Lawmakers rejected the salary package yesterday for Louisiana’s interim higher education commissioner — and ex-Mississippi higher education leader — calling the pay excessive and throwing the leadership over the state’s public colleges and universities in limbo.

Members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget voted 23-9 against approving the compensation for Tom Layzell, a 40-year veteran of public higher education in Kentucky, Illinois and Mississippi who had started working in Louisiana last week.

Layzell stood to receive a monthly base pay of $25,000, with additional monthly payments of $1,500 for housing and $600 for a car — which could give him $162,600 over six months. He was chosen unanimously by the state Board of Regents that governs higher education in the state.

“Mr. Layzell, it in no way reflects your ability or your portfolio or anything,” said Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the budget committee. “It reflects the economy that we’re in today and what we hear from our constituents back home.”

It was unclear yesterday how the Board of Regents will respond. After the vote, Fannin asked Layzell to consider a lower salary, but Layzell wouldn’t offer any indication if he would be willing to take the pay cut.

“I thought the level of pay was fair given the level of experience I bring to the job, Layzell said.

Retired president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, Layzell also is a former commissioner of higher education for the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.

Regents board members and others called the rejection of a pay package they considered in line with other jobs around the country an embarrassment to Louisiana — and a possible deterrent in the state’s search for a permanent higher education commissioner.

“Finding a permanent person just got very complicated,” said Regents Chairman Artis Terrell.

“What is it that we want? Do we want mediocrity? I mean you do have to pay for talent. It’s the worst message we could have sent to the rest of the country,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, who monitors higher education issues in the state.

Lawmakers questioned whether Layzell could offer much leadership with such a short tenure at the helm and suggested someone with a smaller salary could have been chosen temporarily.

“You’re not going to be able to accomplish anything,” said Rep. M.J. “Mert” Smiley, R-Port Vincent.

Layzell said he had planned to implement a tuition increase law recently passed by the Legislature, recommend changes to the funding model for schools and suggest ways to improve performance, based on his work in other states.

Layzell started the job Aug. 2. His appointment was supposed to run until Jan. 31, or until a permanent commissioner is hired, whichever is first.

The commissioner’s job was vacant with the July resignation of Sally Clausen, who left after receiving sharp criticism for quietly retiring from her job and then being rehired without ever telling the Regents. Her resignation prompted legislative passage of the bill requiring the next commissioner’s salary to get lawmakers’ approval.

Clausen received a $425,000 a year pay package. The head of the LSU System, John Lombardi, is paid $601,000 a year, and the chiefs of the University of Louisiana and Southern University systems receive pay packages that top $420,000 annually.

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