AP: Colleges negotiating for ways to lessen budget cuts

BATON ROUGE – The threat of up to $380 million in budget cuts to Louisiana’s public colleges has higher education officials and lawmakers scrambling for ideas to stop the slashing, weighing everything from tax-break suspensions to new tuition and fee hikes.

College system leaders are suggesting a special legislative session might be needed to stop deep, damaging reductions from forcing widespread layoffs, jeopardizing worker-training programs and chasing potential students and faculty from campuses.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said the magnitude of cuts being considered by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to balance next year’s budget, which has a $1.4 billion shortfall, could have “long-term catastrophic effects.”

“You would have a ripple effect that goes well beyond higher education and into our economy,” Woodley said Friday. “This would cause irreversible damage to this state.”

The Jindal administration has suggested its budget proposal for the 2015-16 fiscal year that begins July 1 could have steep reductions for higher education. College leaders say the cut figures reach up to $380 million, which they say would strip 40 percent of their state financing.

The governor’s budget won’t be presented to lawmakers until Feb. 27, but negotiations have started between higher education leaders and legislators about ways to stop the cuts — or at least lessen them.

Asked to describe the implications of the proposed cuts, Southern University System President Ron Mason said in an email: “If they come to pass, the Southern System as we know it could not survive such deep cuts. That’s pretty much it.”

LSU System President F. King Alexander said without changes, many of Louisiana’s colleges would be forced to declare “financial exigency,” the equivalent of campus bankruptcy.

He said the LSU main campus in Baton Rouge would have to stop the hiring of more than 100 new faculty members and lay off another 200 — for a school that ranks 46 out of the United States’ 50 flagship universities on what it spends per student before any reductions.

College system leaders said unless a solution can be found quickly, the damage of simply discussing the cuts and preparing for them would be significant.

“You think students are going to want to stick around and come here as we stumble our way through this and try to decide something in May?” Alexander said.

The two-month regular legislative session begins April 13.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said he’d be interested in having a special session to consider ways to stop the cuts, “if there was a plan prior to us going in.”

But so far, support hasn’t coalesced behind a package of ideas.

Some lawmakers are talking about raising cigarette taxes or scaling back tax breaks. But Jindal opposes anything that he considers a tax hike.

Lawmakers are looking for loopholes where they can generate new dollars but still let Jindal call the plans “revenue neutral.” They’re also talking about the temporary suspension of some tax breaks through a resolution that the governor couldn’t veto.

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said his campuses can’t absorb the level of state financing cuts proposed without some additional revenue to help offset the slashing.

But tuition increases force up the cost of the state’s free-tuition program called TOPS. Alario said some lawmakers are talking about possibly raising other fees on college students instead.

“There are solutions to be found. It’s a matter of how much people can swallow,” he said.