Local impact of state budget plan uncertain




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Local impact of state budget plan uncertain

Jeremy Harper
Capital Correspondent
Published: Friday, February 27, 2015 at 8:18 p.m.


BATON ROUGE — It remains precisely unclear how the $1.6 billion in cuts outlined in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s state budget proposal will impact the Terrebonne-Lafourche region.

“The process needs to unfold a little more before we can wrap our heads around it,” said Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, who serves on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

The committee met for four hours today to hear the administration’s outline for the $24.5 billion budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year that begins in July. It was the first of many hearings on a budget process that will continue through the legislative session that kicks off April 13.

The fiscal uncertainty is perhaps most pronounced at the state’s colleges and universities. The proposal calls for a reduction of $141 million to higher education, much less than the $400 million cut originally floated by the administration.

The higher education money is dependent upon the administration’s plan to roll back some of Louisiana’s refundable tax credits for companies, a move expected to be met with opposition from the state’s influential business and industry lobby.

Refundable tax credits are those that exceed a company’s tax liability. For example, if a company owed $100 in state taxes but earned a $150 credit through one of Louisiana’s myriad state tax breaks, the state would pay the $50 difference directly back to the company.

The administration’s plan would cap the tax credits at the amount a company actually owed the state. Administration officials said they expected opposition.

“Every time a credit is put on the table there’s a passionate stakeholder base and there’s a very passionate debate,” Revenue Secretary Tim Barfield told lawmakers Friday. “These are all difficult decisions.”

The administration suggested it could be open to other revenue-raising ideas to help close the remaining higher education gap, such as increasing the cigarette tax, as long as any increases were offset by tax cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Area lawmakers were mostly quiet Friday after Jindal’s budget proposal was released. Several legislators did not respond to requests for comment, including Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma; Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma; Rep. Lenar Whitney, R-Houma; and Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville.

Meanwhile, higher education officials began poring over the budget proposal Friday afternoon in an effort to understand how it would affect the state’s colleges and universities. The budget does not include line items for individual schools such as Nicholls State University and Fletcher Technical Community College. Rather, the higher education budget is lumped into the Louisiana Board of Regents, which then doles out the money.

Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System that oversees several state colleges including Nicholls, said she appreciated the administration’s proposal to reform the state’s tax credit system to address higher education.

“We are encouraged by the administration’s willingness to identify revenue options that could alleviate budget reductions to higher education,” Woodley said. “We are in the process of digesting all of the options laid out in the Governor’s Executive Budget to examine how it addresses our collective goal of maintaining current funding levels with minimal burden on our students. This is the starting point of a long process of working with the administration and legislators, as most of the revenue proposals are contingent upon legislative action.”

A spokeswoman for the University of Louisiana System said she expected the Board of Regents to provide an outline for paying for higher education under the budget proposal in the near future but didn’t a have a timeline.

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System that oversees Fletcher Technical Community College in Schriever, also stressed that the budget proposal was the first step in a long political process.

“The different options being proposed to minimize impacts to higher education (are) encouraging,” Sullivan said. “I am optimistic that collectively the administration, the Legislature and the higher education leadership will find budget solutions that work for the citizens of Louisiana.”

Brigett Scott, a professor and president of the Faculty Senate at Nicholls, echoed that optimism but said she needed more information before passing judgment on the budget proposal.

“It’s still too early to really tell what’s going to happen,” Scott said. “I always personally like to keep a positive attitude. We’re going to support higher education across the state and we hope that the people of Louisiana do the same. That’s what I’ll be encouraging all of my friends and family to do: to contact their legislators and ask them to support higher education.”