Higher ed chiefs summoned to discuss budget crisis

By Justin DiCharia

BATON ROUGE – Gov. John Bel Edwards summoned Louisiana’s higher education leaders to the dining room of the Governor’s Mansion Wednesday to outline options to end Louisiana’s budgetary Armageddon.

While the two constitutionally unprotected sectors are more hopeful than previous years, uncertainty over funding solutions to a $750 million shortfall for the current fiscal year remains. Higher education and health care are the only two sectors without constitutional guarantees funding.

In the 90-minute closed-door meeting, Edwards asked for their support for his revenue raising proposals, Louisiana State University System President F. King Alexander said.

With the current fiscal year shortfall and a $1.9 billion projected deficit in the upcoming year, Edwards announced earlier this week a series of revenue increasing measures, which includes, among other options, increasing the state sales tax to five cents, the cigarette tax to $1.08 per pack and the monthly phone tax to a five percent flat rate.

“Something has to be done to stop the bleeding. I know the governor will strive to protect our colleges and universities from additional cuts this fiscal year,” University of Louisiana System Interim President Dan Reneau said.

Alexander and Reneau expressed willingness to work alongside the governor to find short and long-term solutions to higher education funding, understanding the solutions found this summer were only short-term.

Louisiana’s universities and colleges faced the prospect of an 82 percent cut to funding last spring before the legislature raised revenue by cutting the tax credit and exemption program.

The governor’s budget proposal will go in front of the Legislature during a special session that starts in mid-February.

“Higher ed is a priority, but doesn’t mean it’s immune from the cuts,” warned Alexander, who rescheduled a flight to Washington D.C. to attend the short-notice meeting with Edwards “We are actually in the process of getting the numbers that higher education is going to have to cut from the budget unless the new considerations for revenue generation are adopted in the special session. If nothing is done, higher education is going to get hammered.”

Edwards campaigned on a pledge to that priority, proposing a long-term funding goal of 50 percent state funds and 50 percent tuition fees. This follows seven years of cuts to higher education, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in state monies during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure.

Reneau noted students are paying an average of 93 percent more in tuition than in 2009, and with little state support Louisiana fell to 47th in adult bachelor degrees and 48th in total funding per student throughout the nation.

“The hostage was let out of jail for six months, and I’m afraid we’re on the verge of getting back in it,” added Alexander. “That worries us because we’re not constitutionally protected, and if the governor doesn’t get a lot of what he wants passed, we’re going to be one of the victims at the end of this.”