What are worst-, best-case scenarios for Louisiana higher education as special session about to start? _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- From left, LSU president F. King Alexander, Gov. John Bel Edwards, and Louisiana commissioner of administration Jay Dardenne at the new LSU gymnastics training facility, Saturday, February 6, 2016, during an open house and ribbon cutting in Baton Rouge, La.

In a best case scenario, Louisiana’s colleges and universities are going to struggle with shaving a shared $70 million from their budgets — which is already their largest mid-year cut in state history. In a worst case scenario, one that would require almost total inaction by the state Legislature, the cuts to higher education could be so drastic that college campuses would close early and students would be unable to finish the school year.

But even if schools are spared the doomsday scenario of being shuttered, higher education leaders say that there’s still much to be concerned about with any level of cut, especially since this will be their eighth straight year of seeing their state funding reduced. They’ve already lost 55 percent of their state dollars over the past seven years, the most severe disinvestment in higher education of any other state during that period of time.

Laying off faculty, furloughs, ending summer school, raising student fees and cutting degree programs and class offerings are just some of the things that could happen because of budget cuts which schools will only have four months left in the school year to address.

“Higher education has been taking a haircut for seven years, and we’ve taken them when many others haven’t,” said F. King Alexander, LSU System President. “It’s hard to take a haircut when you have no hair. Our spending per student is already lowest in the country.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards and higher education leaders are making the rounds ahead of the special Legislative session alerting legislators and the public that if new revenue isn’t raised to quickly bridge a historically large mid-year budget shortfall of $850 million, then campuses will close because they won’t have money to pay faculty and staff throughout the end of the year.

Edwards said in his televised address on Thursday that by April 1, the LSU Ag Center and its parish extension offices in every parish and Pennington Biomedical Research Center would close by April 1. He said LSU in Baton Rouge, the LSU Health Science Center in Shreveport and LSU-Eunice would all close by April 30 in addition to other schools from the Southern, University of Louisiana and community college systems.

“If you are a student attending one of these universities, it means that you will receive a grade of incomplete,” Edwards said. “Many students will not be able to graduate and student athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester.”

The rhetoric, which Edwards promised were not “scare tactics,” quickly drew criticism from conservatives who said Edwards was creating dangerous uncertainty for students, parents and student athletes.

“Every year it seems like there is a threat to shut down higher education, and it’s never happened,” said State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metarie, former chairmain of the Senate education committee. “The governor has used doomsday scenarios and scare tactics early, and I think that’s kind of a shame.”

Barry Erwin, president and CEO of Council for a Better Louisiana, a good government nonprofit that advocates on higher education issues, said the governor is not misrepresenting the severity of the budget shortfall, but he noted that it’s unlikely legislature will be unable to prevent schools from shutting down.

“If nothing happens, then what he’s saying is correct,” Erwin said. “The budget situation is serious, and I think we have some hugely serious issues. But I don’t think anyone thinks that they’re not going to do something to address those problems.”

Erwin said he thinks even some conservative legislators are warming to the idea of tax increases coupled with budget cuts to address the budget shortfall.

Appel agreed that in the short term, he’s supportive of tax increases to take care of the immediate shortfall.

“The governor wants some cuts and some tax increases, and my position right now is let’s do them and get it off the table,” he said, adding that in the long term he wants to see greater budget reforms and structural overhauls to higher education to address the future of funding to colleges and universities.

Edwards is coming to the table with a plan to use $328 million in one-time funds, and his own slate of about $160 million in budget cuts. He’s also proposing a one-cent sales tax hike and the 22-cent increase in state cigarette taxes to help address the gap.

But even if taxes are raised, Edwards said he’s proposing $42 million in cuts to higher education. This will be combined with the $28 million shortfall in TOPS scholarship dollars that universities and colleges will absorb. That means higher education can expect $70 million in cuts for this fiscal year already.

Edwards said he wants to stop the cuts to higher education right there.

The shortfall to TOPS alone has already caused some hysteria for students and parents, concerned after the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance announced earlier this week that it was suspending payments to schools because of uncertainty around the budget. On Friday, LOSFA restarted payments but only up to 80 percent of the TOPS awards. The other 20 percent was unfunded by the Legislature.

In the meantime, higher education leaders are still being told to prepare for drastic reductions in state funding, since there’s no guarantee that the Legislature will coalesce around plans to raise revenue in the next three and a half weeks.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told higher education leaders to prepare contingency plans for a scenario where higher education would absorb half of the cuts in a situation where no new revenue is generated.

“Unfortuntately, the brunt of this shortfall will hit Higher Education and Healthcare,” Dardenne wrote in a letter to the top higher education leaders in the state.

In his letter from last week, he estimated that higher education should prepare for $131 million in potential cuts — half of what’s left after the one time money and Edwards proposed cuts are applied to the deficit. That letter came before budget forecasts this week adjusted the shortfall from $750 million to upwards of $850 million.

Each of the four higher education systems submitted their grim plans to comply with cuts, outlining who and what would be on the chopping block in the event of the steep reduction.

The Southern University System said it would lose $4.5 million in the contingency plans submitted to the Board of Regents last week. Cuts would include summer school being canceled at the Baton Rouge and Shreveport campuses and cutting all adjunct faculty, including 27 adjuncts at the Southern University Law Center. The proposed budget estimates losing 200 non-tenured faculty and staff positions at Southern University Baton Rouge.

“My staff has suggested to me that these cuts would be dramatic, disastrous, catastrophic,” Ray Belton, Southern University System president said. “From my vantage point, all of those descriptions are an understatement.”

The University of Louisiana System, preparing for a loss of $38 million over the next four months, said the cut would impact their accredidation, result in salary reductions, loss of degree programs, reduce scholarships and waivers for students, and result in a reduction in the number of courses taught in the spring and summer semester.

Dan Reneau, president of the University of Louisiana System, said schools have already endured devastating cuts.

“I know what it’s like to look a student in the face and say I’m sorry you can’t graduate, because we can’t teach the class you need,” he said. “Those are the types of things we’ve already been through... further reductions will lead to some disasters.”

The Louisiana Community and Technical College System said their plan to cut $20.2 million is by laying off 1,200 employees starting March 15.

The LSU System, which would absorb the largest brunt of the cuts at $65 million — $20 million which would be at the flagship university.

LSU’s Baton Rouge campus alone projected enrollment caps reducing 12 percent of undergraduate students, fee increases of $690 per student, and the loss of hundreds of faculty and staff.

While this will be the eighth straight year of cuts to higher education, another one looms right around the corner. After the Legislature deals with the mid-year cuts, they face an estimated $2 billion shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“We cannot go from year to year and every spring come out and say, ‘Gosh, what are the cuts going to be this year?’ The state of Louisiana needs to once and for all face the truth that we’ve had eight straight years of cuts to higher education,” said Richard Lipsey, Board of Regents chairman. “It’s been a losing battle and we can’t lose. We can’t fold up the tent and give up.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.