State faces budget gap of $1.6 billion
BY Elizabeth Crisp| [email protected]
Feb. 12, 2015
Across the state, people are bracing for potentially devastating cuts to college and university funding that could change higher education in Louisiana for years to come.
The talk of deep — many have been throwing around figures around 40 to 60 percent — cuts to campuses has prompted responses from faculty, students, alumni and administrators, though most are left with only speculation and concern.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed budget, which his administration says will include recommendations for paring back costs, is slated to be revealed Feb. 27. The state faces a $1.6 billion funding shortfall in the coming year, largely a result of Jindal’s reluctance to touch any measure that could be seen as increasing taxes, plus the impact of slumping oil prices.
Higher education and health care are the largest pieces of the state budget that aren’t protected by the state constitution — leaving them most vulnerable to such large-scale cuts.
With the dreary outlook already set, colleges have nearly three more weeks of speculation, conjecture and conspiracy theories over what the governor will try to do to help soften the blow. It will be even longer until lawmakers hash out a spending plan for the coming budget year.
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“That’s where we are right now,” Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo said of the ongoing anxiety over the budget threat. “I understand, and we’re empathetic because we’re in the same position.”
Higher education leaders have been holding regular budget discussions to weigh various options, while also preparing for the worst.
“What we’ve been spending a lot of time on is looking for alternative existing sources of revenue that may be repurposed toward higher education,” Rallo said.
And those in the know say they are hopeful that the state can come up with an innovative way to try to address the budget problem — or at least make the cuts not as steep.
It’s too early to say exactly what the final blow will be or how legislators might try to dull the pain. In addition to the discussions over alternate sources of revenue that could be spent on higher education, leaders have been looking to possibly form new partnerships with businesses to help cover costs and streamline offerings on campuses.
“What we’re trying to talk about is the ability and willingness to look at what we do,” Rallo said.
But despite the continued assertions that things are moving behind-the-scenes, anxiety has continued to spread — and that includes questions over what the uncertainty means for recruiting faculty, students and forming long-term plans.
“If the worst case scenario were to come true, I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say this would be devastating to higher education in the state of Louisiana,” said Albert Samuels, a political scientist and vice president of the Faculty Senate at Southern University. “I don’t think it’s alarmist to suggest that we would be talking about closing institutions.”
The LSU Student Government Association recently adopted a measure speaking out against the cuts, and the LSU Alumni Association has launched a grassroots movement to encourage alums to contact members of the Legislature, urging them to address the budget crisis without harming higher education.
“These cuts, if made, will prove to be detrimental to LSU and to the future of higher education in Louisiana,” LSU SGA capital adviser Bradley Guin said in announcing the student resolution. “These cuts simply cannot continue if we expect to see higher education and our students prosper in Louisiana.”
The cuts — anticipated for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — would come on the heels of already deep cuts made in recent years — among the steepest in the nation.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Louisiana’s per student higher ed funding has fallen more than any other state since 2008.
LSU Shreveport Faculty Senate President Mary Jarzabek said during a recent LSU Board of Supervisors meeting that the ongoing speculation about cuts has been distressing because of the cutbacks campuses already have faced.
“We have passed the tipping point, and will collapse with further funding cuts,” she said.
When LSU students, faculty and others protested outside a recent rally Jindal held on the LSU campus, several held signs decrying the impending budget cuts.
“Impeachment is the sentence for state budget malfeasance,” blared one of the more prominent ones written in bright red ink with all capital letters.
Louisiana has four systems — the LSU System, Southern University System, Louisiana Technical and Community College System and the University of Louisiana System — that oversee public colleges and universities. A fifth board — the state Board of Regents — is over those four. There are more than 30 campuses spread across the state, including health sciences and law schools. Fourteen of those are four-year degree-granting universities.
Jindal’s appointees to the state’s five governing boards have provided little insight into the governor’s plans or thoughts on the future of higher education in the state.
During the recent LSU board meeting, LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander gave an impassioned speech — detailing the threat with campuses facing 40 percent reductions in state funding. It would mean cutting back thousands of course offerings, laying off faculty, mass declarations of campus financial exigency and, ultimately, graduating fewer students, he said.
“All of these good things we’ve been talking about — all of them end and we go on life support,” he said.
Alexander noted his own daughter, as well as children of two board members, would be among the students impacted.
At least one other board member kept his head down for most of Alexander’s speech and showed no visible reaction at the end. Others responded with tepid applause.
Kevin Cope, president of the Baton Rouge campus LSU Faculty Senate, had urged the board to take a public stand.
“We know that they are doing things,” he said of the behind-the-scenes efforts to try to address the budget.
University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley also alluded to the ongoing discussions and efforts to mitigate the cuts.
“The reality is that when you are looking at cuts of this magnitude all institutions are vulnerable,” she said in a statement. “After seven years of budget reductions, our universities have already been through rounds of layoffs, furloughs, program consolidations, spending and travel freezes, incentivize retirements, and administrative reorganizations. … Instead of going through budget cut scenarios, we should be focusing our efforts on increasing enrollment and degree production to meet the state’s workforce demands. We believe our partners in the Legislature understand Louisiana’s economy cannot afford any steps backward and will work with us to find funding solutions.”
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.