Louisiana colleges are at risk of cutting back programs and services for students, losing accreditation, laying off workers and, eventually, closing altogether under the grim budget picture they face in the coming year, higher education leaders told a key House panel Wednesday.

“It’s really not possible for us to manage any cut in the coming year,” Southern University System President Ronald Mason said. “What we’re trying to do is have a fighting chance.”

Louisiana is facing a $1.6 billion funding shortfall in the budget year that begins July 1. That has left higher education among the key areas that face the threat of deep cuts.

Without an infusion of millions by the state Legislature, Louisiana’s public universities and colleges would get about $123 million in state funding to split among their campuses next year — about an 82 percent cut from their current funding level.

“We just can’t do it,” Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo said.

The potential cuts have been alternately called “cartoonlike” and “devastating.”

Colleges currently are preparing for what has been dubbed the “doomsday scenario” while campaigning against the cuts.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee pored over a 50-page presentation during the budget overview during Wednesday’s meeting but offered no answers for how to fill in the gap. The legislative session begins Monday.

Proposals to bring in more money have included scaling back refundable tax credits and increasing the cigarette tax, but a clear plan has yet to congeal.

“We’re going to do what we can to fund what we can,” said state Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero.

“We cannot afford to let Mississippi get ahead of us,” Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, lamented.

The potentially dire situation isn’t entirely a surprise.

Louisiana higher education leaders have been traveling the state sounding alarm bells over the threat for the past several weeks.

But it did offer the first opportunity for them to state their case to lawmakers, who will soon begin hashing out the budget, and urge them to spare higher ed from the deep cuts on the horizon.

Among his own warnings, LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander said deep cuts would hit every parish in Louisiana.

“We would have to eliminate the parish-based Ag Center program that we have,” he said.

State Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, said that would hit rural Louisiana the hardest.

“We’re going to have to do something about it because of the service they provide to our rural areas,” he said.

Colleges in other states already are trying to lure faculty away from LSU, Alexander said.

“This hasn’t gone unnoticed nationally,” he said.

Higher education leaders have focused on asking for level funding from this year — about $1 billion, along with greater autonomy for purchasing and setting student fees.

“At the end of the day, what we are asking for is significant and sustainable funding so we can meet the workforce needs of this state,” Rallo said.

Bills have been filed to give colleges control of setting their own fees. Under the state constitution, fees must be approved by two-thirds of the state Legislature. A change to that would require a vote of the public and the Legislature’s release of that power over college costs.

“This may be the year that we get some traction, and I’m really excited about that,” said Rep. Franklin Foil, a Baton Rouge Republican who has sponsored legislation to give colleges control of setting fees.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.