Hundreds of LSU students and supporters crowded the steps of the State Capitol on Thursday, shouting at legislators who were meeting inside over the threat of potentially devastating cuts to higher education funding in the coming year.
“We will not go silently,” said Justin DiCharia, a junior mass communications major and one of the organizers of the rally. “Silence is surrender; today they will hear our voices.”
Louisiana is facing a $1.6 billion shortfall in the budget that begins July 1. Lawmakers wrapped up their third week of the session Thursday without a clear plan for sparing higher education and health care from taking the bulk of the hit. Several proposals, including eliminating the state’s inventory tax, raising the cigarette tax and reining in other programs, have been sought out, but Gov. Bobby Jindal has threatened to veto the entire budget if it contains any piece he identifies as a “tax increase,” so legislators are still working through several possibilities.
“We understand the plight that you all have. We are working to try to solve the problem,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, told a group of LSU students once they moved inside to a meeting of his committee.
In the meantime, colleges and universities have been instructed to prepare for what’s being called a “doomsday scenario” of up to 80 percent cuts to their budgets. Higher education leaders say any funding cut, after years of repeated hits to state funding, likely would lead to layoffs and reduced offerings on campuses.
Dressed mostly in LSU purple and gold, students flooded the front of the Capitol, waving bright hand-drawn signs that read, among many slogans, “WTF: Where’s the funding?” “Hands off my education,” “SOS: Save our School” and “Cutting is a NO GEAUX.” They chanted “No funds; no future” and “Enough is enough.”
The students passed around a collection bucket — a symbolic gesture toward the budget plight — and sang LSU’s alma mater.
“We’re showing everyone that we are listening,” said Valencia Richardson, a junior majoring in political communication who also helped organize the event.
During a recent forum on campus, LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander urged students to “be annoying” and make their opposition to the protests heard. But several noted that a broader higher education rally at the Capitol two weeks ago failed to draw as many LSU students as organizers had hoped. Instead, many of the most vocal students at that event haled from University of New Orleans and other colleges that make up the University of Louisiana System.
While LSU students rallied outside the Capitol on Thursday, groups from all 13 schools in the Louisiana Community and Technical College System held a demonstration of their own inside. At booths spread across the main hall, students demonstrated how community colleges are addressing the state’s workforce needs in high-demand fields.
Arthur Savoie, of Ville Platte, who teaches welding at the South Louisiana Community College Coreil campus, oversaw a computer display that showed virtual welding. The lines of guys in suits snaked around Memorial Hall for a turn to don the mask and weld virtual joints. “We look for steady hands and eye coordination,” Savoie said as one man’s virtual bond went skittering across the screen.
Savoie said, of the 15 welders he’s teaching who are about to graduate, 14 of them already have jobs with starting pay at $20 to $25 an hour.
“There are jobs everywhere right now. The shipyards are hiring, railroads need welders and so do the (oilfield) platforms,” Savoie said. “We’re staying busy.”
Andrew Mahtook, LSU Student Government president, spoke to several leaders at the Capitol, including House Speaker Chuck Kleckley and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff Kyle Plotkin. Mahtook also spoke to the Senate Education and Finance Committees.
“This, I can say, is my proudest moment at LSU,” Mahtook said.
Several students blamed the threat of cuts on Jindal, who was in Washington, D.C., during the rally. The governor was giving a speech on the federal Affordable Care Act. At least one sign in the crowd referred to the governor as “Bobby Swindle,” and students booed when his name was mentioned.
Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, suggested they rally outside the Governor’s Mansion to make their opposition to cuts heard.
But Jindal’s administration praised students for participating in the rally.
“We think it’s a great thing that LSU students are showing up at the Capitol to make their voices heard and make sure higher education funding is protected,” Plotkin said in a statement.
Jindal has proposed cutting back on refundable tax credits he frequently refers to as “corporate welfare” to free up money for higher education.
“Taxpayers are currently sending over $500 million in free checks to companies that are not paying state taxes,” Plotkin said. “This needs to stop and these dollars need to be invested in LSU and our other colleges and universities.”
Mark Ballard, of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. 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.