Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration presented a budget recommendation on Friday that largely spares colleges and universities from what they feared would be catastrophic cuts in the coming year. But higher education leaders warn that there’s still a lot of work to be done before lawmakers finalize a state spending plan.
The Jindal plan relies on $526 million from the state scaling back on refundable tax credits. About $376 million of that would go toward higher education, leaving a $211 million gap in higher ed funding in the coming year.
State Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo said he’s comforted by the fact that the administration is offering suggestions.
“It was a positive conversation, but at the end of the day there will be many rocky weeks and months ahead,” he said.
He said higher education leaders will continue to work with state legislators, who have until June to craft the spending plan that will take effect July 1.
Southern University System President Ron Mason noted that the cuts outlined by Jindal’s administration are much less than higher education leaders had been bracing for, but still significant. “The only manageable scenario is zero cuts,” he said.
Jindal’s plan offers up several recommendations for filling the gap in funding: increased fees for students -- dubbed “excellence fees,” increasing the price of advanced degrees that aren’t directly tied to the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program, giving the schools more autonomy over risk management, and raising the state’s cigarette tax to provide a tax credit program for students and businesses that donate to colleges and universities.
The administration included funding for the Workforce Investment for a Stronger Economy, or WISE, Fund, which was created last year to enhance programs in high-demand fields.
LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander warned that higher education still faces more than half a billion dollars in cuts without the tax credit scheme -- which appears to be the major plan for fixing higher ed funding.
“The proposed budget includes $567 million in state General Fund reductions to higher education, equating to a historic 78 percent cut to Louisiana’s public colleges and universities,” he wrote in a letter to LSU supporters. “ While we support the governor’s proposals to help offset much of the reductions, we also have to take the initiative to identify and support LSU-specific solutions so that we remain nationally competitive.”
The fees element concerned some state lawmakers.
“I want to make sure we don’t price out certain students,” said state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge.
Tuition has steadily been on the rise in Louisiana. Full-time, in-state students will pay about $8,700 in tuition and fees this school year. Tuition and fees were about $5,000 at LSU in 2008 -- the year Jindal took office.
Meanwhile, state funding for higher ed has been slashed more on a per student basis than any other state in the nation.
According to the non-profit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Louisiana’s per pupil funding dropped 43.2 percent from 2008 to 2014.