Higher education leaders are asking for $1.4 billion from the state Legislature next year for operating expenses — nearly twice what the state’s colleges and universities received this year.
“Why not shoot for the moon?” asked Steve Smith, a member of the Louisiana Community and Technical College Board who serves as a representative on the Board of Regents. “You’ve got to make the request and see what can get done.”
On top of the operating expenses request, the state Board of Regents has asked the Legislature to dole out an additional $300 million for student financial aid, including the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships.
The $1.7 billion request comes as Louisiana faces yet another $1 billion-plus budget shortfall in the coming year. Ultimately, it will be up to the Legislature to decide how much of the state’s nearly $25 billion budget goes to fund colleges and universities.
Higher education leaders had braced for deep cuts during this year’s legislative session, but state lawmakers cobbled together a $24.5 billion state spending plan that relied heavily on short-term fixes to stave off the deepest hits to agencies’ budgets.
Louisiana will elect a new governor Nov. 21. Both Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards have said that, if elected, one of the first duties would be calling a special session early next year to address budget issues. Both also have identified higher education among their top priorities.
In discussing the decision to ask for a sizable budget increase, Board of Regents members and staff said Wednesday more money is needed to build back from recent losses.
“We’re way behind on the curve,” Edward Markle, a board member from New Orleans, said of the increased request. “We know it’s a lot of money, but there’s no fluff in this money.”
An analysis from the nonpartisan Center for Budget Policy and Priorities this year found that higher education funding in Louisiana has been slashed 42 percent since 2008 — about $4,941 per student and more than any other state in the country.
“The Legislature needs to hear our cries,” Markle said. “This state does not move forward without good education.”
Regents Chairman Roy Martin said the financial outlook on many of the campuses has to be improved if the state expects to meet workforce demands.
“We can’t do this with tuition increases alone,” he said.
The CBPP report found that on average and inflation-adjusted, it costs 67.2 percent, or $2,939, more to attend a public four-year university in Louisiana today than it did in 2008, and the costs continue to rise.
Several board members said they believe higher education is at a critical point where modest steady funding only lets schools further decline.
“We’re at a time in our history where we must make a decision: Do we continue feeding the golden goose or do we let the golden goose die?” Markle said. “It’s time for the Legislature to stand up. It’s time to get serious about these issues.”
Barbara Goodson, deputy commissioner for finance and administration, said the $1.4 billion figure, plus $300 million for financial aid, equals out to full funding under the state matrix.
Martin said he doesn’t find that unreasonable.
“It’s where we were in 2008,” he said. “It’s a big request, but we have a large number of jobs to fill.”