As the Legislature entered the third week of its 2015 session, higher education leaders showed little optimism over the current state of negotiations that would spare colleges and universities from deep cuts in the coming year.

“Our timeline doesn’t fit with this legislative timeline,” LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander said during a meeting with The Advocate editorial board and other system leaders Monday. “All of us are gambling.”

At stake in that gamble: the potential loss of more than 80 percent of state funding for colleges and universities. Louisiana faces a $1.6 billion funding shortfall in the budget year that begins July 1. Unless legislators work out a plan for addressing that, higher education and health care will take the brunt of that blow, and, at least at this point, no clear plan has emerged from the ongoing budget negotiations.

“It’s complicated politically, and it’s just so big,” University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said. “I believe that it will, unfortunately, come down to the wire.”

State lawmakers say they are working to come up with a budget solution, and that includes trying to protect higher education from the cuts.

“These are difficult times, but we owe it to our students and our state’s future economy to invest in higher education,” House Speaker Chuck Kleckley said in a statement Monday. “It’s vital to our ability to move forward and progress.”

“We have to try to solve the problem without placing higher education in jeopardy,” he added.

But the four system heads and Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo each expressed some concern over watching the days of session continue to tick away without an obvious plan forward.

Already, schools have been instructed to prepare for a “doomsday scenario” of getting by on not quite 20 percent of their current state funding levels in the coming year.

“We have an idea of what it would look like, but haven’t spent a lot of time on it,” Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monty Sullivan said. “To be honest, it’s not a valuable use of our time. It’s a lost cause.”

Reduced class offerings, delayed faculty hires and deferred expenses are just a few of the immediate results they are seeing from that process.

“I think the magnitude of the potential cut and the uncertainty has made it very difficult to plan,” Woodley said. “Not to say that no one is hiring, but it becomes very difficult.”

During hearings, legislators have asked what size cut would be acceptable. Woodley and others said that’s not productive, either.

“There are many concerns, and one of the larger concerns I have, personally, is that somehow the Legislature finds two-thirds of the money and calls it a day,” she said.

“We’ve been bare bones for several years,” Southern University System President Ronald Mason said. “We really can’t manage any level of cut.”

Woodley said leaders have struggled with telling the real impact that the deep cuts could have on campuses this fall because of the potential effect it could have on recruiting students and retaining faculty.

“We grapple with it,” Woodley said. “If we really told you what that would be, then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have a lot of damage that’s done to the reputation and credibility of our institutions.”

Already, Moody’s has lowered LSU’s bond rating, citing the university’s uncertain financial future. Alexander said he suspects that his university is just the first of many in Louisiana that will see their bond ratings fall.

Leaders have testified in legislative hearings that, ultimately, the cuts could lead to mass layoffs, reduced services and even — in come cases — campus closures.

“It’s my belief and my certainty that many institutions would not be able to make payroll,” Rallo said Monday.

Leaders said they were surprised by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s opposition to legislation that seeks to rein in some of the costs associated with the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the official name for TOPS.

Jindal has said he opposes any changes to the program because he worries about the impact it could have on students. The program was created as a way to encourage high schoolers who meet certain academic benchmarks to stay in Louisiana for college by offering taxpayer-subsidized tuition grants.

But because tuition has a direct impact on the TOPS scholarship’s costs to the state, the Legislature has not been willing to give schools control over setting tuition rates. The TOPS proposal, which was seen as a mechanism for untying the two, was seen as the first step in helping colleges gain that control.

“I know our legislators want to give us tuition autonomy, but they will not give us that as long as TOPS is tied to it,” Alexander said, noting that Moody’s cited LSU’s lack of tuition-setting authority in its explanation for lowering LSU’s credit outlook from positive to stable. “Every state that has a program like TOPS is trying to make some tweaks to it.”

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.