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There’s a class of budget reductions that are harmful -- even painful because of staff and program cuts -- and yet still manageable.

Then there are financial cuts so dramatic -- and perhaps unrealistic -- that it’s hard to picture what the remaining institution would look like when the dust settled.

That second version is hanging over Louisiana’s 28 public colleges and universities right now.

The state faces a $1.6 billion budget deficit, and speculation of up to $300 million in cuts to higher education started appearing in news stories back in January. Since then, the worst-case scenario has only grown worse.

Louisiana’s general fund contribution to higher education this year will be $924 million. But unless the legislature takes action within the next 45 days(I counted this starting on Monday, so it will need to change if it's pushed back) -km, that number plummets to $391 million for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.

Leaders of the state’s four college and university systems have faced a balancing act over the past few weeks. On one hand, they’ve focused on stressing the vital role higher education plays in the state and the damage the cuts would bring. But they also say they’ve only spent a small amount of time planning for them, because the cuts would be so deep and destructive that the administrators say they have to believe a solution will be found by the end of the Legislative session in June.

“We’re having to gamble on a whole lot of things -- hires, course offerings, whether to keep programs,” said F. King Alexander, president of the Louisiana State University System. “All of that’s a gamble because we probably won’t know what will happen until that last week of the session.”

Alexander announced last week that the university is starting to plan for the possibility of financial exigency, although there hasn't been a formal decision to file paperwork. At the LSU System, the number of new faculty hires will be cut in half to about 60 positions.

The state’s Commission of Higher Education estimates that it will have $123.6 million to split up between the four systems: Louisiana State University, the University of Louisiana System, Southern University System and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. (For a breakdown of how much each system would receive, see chart below.)

That’s because out of the $391 million in the governor’s budget, the Board of Regents is required to fund the state’s scholarship program and other mandates to the tune of about $267 million, according to information from a finance committee meeting in March. 

“It’s completely unrealistic from our perspective to think you can operate a higher education system on that number,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the state’s community and technical college system.

As a result, he’s spending his time working with legislators to find a solution, rather than planning for doomsday scenarios.

Even the current better-case scenario is still an unpleasant one.

Cuts on Top of Cuts

Republican Governor Bobby Jindal’s executive budget includes “contingency” funds to offset some of the planned $533 million cut to higher education, according a review given earlier this month at a Legislature hearing.

But that money relies on legislative action to pass a tax rebate proposal, and it would merely lessen the blow. Higher education still would face a cut of at least $161 million from this year’s funding level.

“It’s a frightening time,” said Sonya Hester, an associate professor of English at Southern University at Shreveport. “It’s a time of uncertainty and nervousness. It doesn’t feel good on these campuses right now.”

Southern University System President Ronald Mason also stresses that even at the lesser level, the cuts would still be catastrophic. For Southern, it’d be a reduction in state appropriations of more than 30 percent, and more importantly, it would come on the heels of years of consecutive cuts.

Since 2008, state support for higher education has dropped by about $700 million, according to the Louisiana Commission on Higher Education. The state ranks 46th in per-student spending.

Across the state, colleges have eliminated 336 academic programs (while adding 131 new ones) and reduced the number of employees by 4,734, including 859 faculty members. The number of students, meanwhile, has stayed roughly steady.

"It's not because they want to leave, but with so much fiscal uncertainty, it'd be foolish for faculty members not to have other options at this point."

-- Joshua Stockley, professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe

Students and faculty members are protesting the cuts. They organized a march on the Capitol earlier this month, and there’s another scheduled for this week

Valencia Richardson, a junior at LSU at Baton Rouge who helped organize the march, said students had been concerned since the possibility of cuts was first announced. But talk about financial exigency and thousands of classes being canceled spurred them to become more vocal.

“I’m most scared that come fall, I’m going to wake up the next day… and some of my classes won’t be there anymore,” she said. “Then my whole graduation plan is completely altered.”

Morale among professors in Louisiana is probably lower than ever before, said Joshua Stockley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Most of his colleagues have their eyes peeled for other opportunities.

“It’s not because they want to leave, but with so much fiscal uncertainty, it’d be foolish for faculty members not to have other options at this point,” he said. “You don’t know if your program is going to be the next to be cut.”

The magnitude of the state’s budget problem right now means that realistically, higher education is going to take a cut of some degree, Stockley said.

Yet all the system leaders have said they’re still optimistic for a positive outcome, and they've come together to speak as one voice for higher education, said Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph C. Rallo, who started in his position just three months ago. 

“We'd like to be able every year to plan for a revenue stream that we know is there,” he said. “It’s been a lot of one-time funding that’s kind of cobbled together over the past few years.”

State lawmakers are considering legislation to give the colleges more authority to increase tuition and fees, although that will only provide limited relief in the short term, and likely only for the flagship university rather than at smaller regional universities.

The other important bills before lawmakers deal with raising more revenue from tax increases or by eliminating some tax breaks. Louisiana gives away $7 billion a year in tax credits, Alexander said.

The Board of Regents is asking for about $1 billion for the four systems. It’s a big ask, Sandra K. Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, concedes. And the budget woes facing the state aren’t artificial, she said.  

But neither is the importance of higher education to the state’s overall well-being, she said. Workforce projections show jobs will go unfilled if the state doesn’t increase its output of educated individuals, especially in fields such as engineering and computer science.

“Not only do we not want to go backwards,” she said, “we have to be able to go forward.”

There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make that happen, she said. No one knows for certain what the solution will be. But, Woodley said, everybody agrees one must be found. 

Money from Louisiana's State General Fund, in millions of dollars 

  FY 14-15

FY 15-16*

(% change)

FY 15-16 **

(% change)

LSU System $313.9 $222.5 (29.1) 55.5 (80.9)
LCTC System 116.2 79.3 (31.8) 19.8 (83.3)
Southern U. System 45.9 30.6 (33.2) 7.6 (83.3)
U of La. System 218.5 150.1 (31.3) 37.6 (82.8)
Higher Ed overall 924.1 762.9 (17.4) 390.9 (57.7)

*Budget cuts including revenue from  tax proposal **Budget cuts if tax revenue isn't approved 

Source: FY 15-16 Executive Budget Review, Higher Education by the House Fiscal Division

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