La. higher ed leaders say uncertainty surrounds new budget

La. higher ed leaders say uncertainty surrounds new budget

Amanda McElfresh, Louisiana 1:12 p.m. CST February 28, 2015

Louisiana higher-education leaders said Saturday that the financial impact on the state’s colleges and universities remains uncertain as the legislature begins to tackle Gov. Bobby Jindal’s latest budget proposal.

The proposal, unveiled Friday, would reduce higher education funding by an estimated $140 million to $200 million, panelists said during a roundtable discussion at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. That’s less than some had predicted, but still significant.

“I will call it a crisis, because that is what higher education is facing in this state. We’ve had more cuts to higher education than any other state in the union,” said Edward Chervenak, director of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center. “The executive budget is a good first step in the right direction. But yesterday is just a starting point. This has a long way to go.”

Pearson Cross, interim associate dean of UL’s College of Liberal Arts and head of the political science department, said the budget comes amid a “perfect storm” of decreasing revenues, Jindal’s presidential aspirations and upcoming elections for statewide offices and legislators.

“These cuts have been dropped down from a catastrophic level to a damaging, hurtful level,” Cross said. “We have a budget that’s in crisis, and we have elections that are in crisis. All of those forces are impacting budget decisions.”

Chervenak and Cross said they believe the state’s current budget situation is a result of lower-than-anticipated business revenues, a history of using one-time funds for recurring expenses and constitutional provisions that give higher education and health care virtually no protection from financial cuts.

“All states are facing some of this, but in most others, the revenues have moved a little bit,” Cross said. “Here, we are still not seeing that miracle yet.”

Some audience members suggested other possible solutions, including higher taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products. Chervenak said he has heard similar ideas, but doesn’t think it would garner much traction in the state.

“The governor is an absolutist on this,” he said. “He does not want to go in front of the public and primary voters and say they voted for higher taxes in my state. That would be a death knell for any Republican in the primary season … Also, this is a Bible Belt state. People are very conservative, and I don’t know if this is something they would necessarily support.”

Panelists also said they don’t see any concerted effort to consolidate Louisiana’s colleges and universities. Cross noted that state officials recently said that 90 percent of Louisiana college students attend an institution within their geographical area, meaning that most students tend to stay close to home rather than attending a university elsewhere in the state.

“There’s a great deal of support for those campuses in those areas,” he said. “It’s not like you can just close down any place and think that students will travel. You could see something like that reducing college attendance.”

Chervenak said the most immediate solution will probably come from the business community.

“We have to hope the Louisiana miracle takes off, that there are more jobs and investment and more money coming into the state,” he said. “It’s just very difficult to say what will happen. We’ll have a new governor and some new legislators within the next few years. We’ll just have to see what kind of approach they take.”