Louisiana lawmakers don’t offer detailed solutions on college cuts

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BATON ROUGE — With formal budget negotiations slated to begin this week, Louisiana legislative leaders gave higher education officials no assurances Monday that lawmakers have a short-term plan to stave off deep budget cuts to college campuses.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, told the audience at a higher education conference that the Legislature can’t allow slashing anywhere from $400 million to $500 million across colleges next year.

“We have to find a way this legislative session to fix this problem. Higher ed does not need to come back to the Legislature every year and fight for every single dollar they get. They need predictability. They need stability,” Kleckley said.

But Kleckley, Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel and House Education Chairman Steve Carter didn’t offer specific ideas at the conference for how to lessen those cuts in the fiscal year that begins July 1. They offered general talk of possibly reining in state spending on tax breaks and letting colleges raise their tuition rates.

That appears to leave higher education officials to spearhead proposals that could inject more money into their campuses.

Gov. Bobby Jindal unveils his budget recommendations Friday, and those recommendations are expected to contain cuts that would strip up to 60 percent of state financing from higher education to help the state close a $1.6 billion shortfall next year.

College leaders say such reductions would force widespread layoffs, shutter programs and threaten some campuses with closure, coming after cuts that have dropped state financing for higher education by $700 million since 2008. National credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service warned in a new commentary that the state’s universities are “ill-equipped to withstand further state funding cuts.”

Release of the governor’s budget officially starts negotiations with lawmakers, who will devise a final version of the budget in the legislative session that begins April 13. The presidents of Louisiana’s four public college systems are talking to lawmakers about a package of proposals that could help offset some of the cuts.

“When Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall on Friday, we’re going to need everybody in this room to help piece Humpty Dumpty back together again because it’s going to be a tough situation. It’s going to be tough to manage morale,” LSU System President F. King Alexander told higher education leaders during a separate panel discussion.

Among the ideas, system presidents have talked of seeking greater freedom for their institutions, so they can sell their own property, buy their own insurance and purchase their own supplies without the bureaucracy other state agencies must follow. They want to be able to raise tuition and fees without needing a two-thirds vote from the Legislature, the highest hurdle for colleges in the country.

Southern University System President Ron Mason said that if the governor and lawmakers want to provide only a small slice of the financing for college campuses, higher education leaders should get more control over decision-making.

Some of the ideas, such as tuition autonomy, face a tough road to passage because any increase in tuition drives up the cost of the state’s free college tuition program called TOPS. And system presidents said tuition increases can only provide modest relief because some campuses can’t boost costs on students much without pricing them out entirely.

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