In the fraternity house atmosphere of the Legislature, the first time a new official runs the gauntlet of a big committee, there’s usually a good bit of joking and teasing about the newbie.

That this was at an absolute minimum when Joseph Rallo appeared before the House Appropriations Committee speaks to just how serious the budget situation is. As commissioner of higher education, Rallo arrived at a time of crisis in state colleges and universities; while he’s got the background both as a Texas Tech administrator and an Air Force colonel, and it’s not his first legislative fraternity party, the lack of barracking around had mostly to do with how serious things are.

Rallo pointed out how the potential of an 82 percent cut in the state’s direct support for colleges would be devastating. That percentage comes from an initial cut proposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the highly likely scenario that the governor’s plan for raising new revenues for higher ed will not make it through the legislative process, meaning much deeper cuts.

The campuses have laid off workers and cut expenses so far to avoid losing faculty members, Rallo said. “Even there, we’ve had to make cuts,” he added.

Every governor’s budget is a bit of a wish list before it gets to the Legislature, but Jindal’s latest is more Peter Pan than most, because averting disaster requires much more in new revenues (read: taxes) than Jindal has hitherto allowed. That colored the talk before the appropriators by Rallo and heads of the four state college systems.

LSU’s F. King Alexander tried to underline the impact of the cuts. “We’re down about 230 net faculty members, and each faculty member (on average) brings in $140,000 in federal grants to the state,” Alexander said.

Most of those numbers come from the main campus and its law and agricultural operations and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center — all vital parts of Baton Rouge’s ambitions to grow economically and socially in the years ahead.

The threat is real, Alexander said, because other universities read the papers and are actively poaching LSU faculty.

Students and faculty are being encouraged by petition drives in front of the LSU Union, and the LSU Alumni Federation has set up an email list for alerts on this legislative session. If there’s any spirit of activism left on campuses, God knows this is the time to deploy it.

“The magnitude is so large that it’s not appropriate to say we can continue business as usual,” Rallo said of the cuts.

Ben Miller honored

As co-founder of the Kean Miller law firm, Ben Miller was well-known in the legal and business communities, but right up until his death late last year after a sudden illness, he was active in community affairs. One of his last crusades was as a volunteer board member of the Capital Area Transit System, seeking to strengthen the long-troubled transit service. He was posthumously honored with the Community Champion Award from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber recently. It was well-deserved.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer at The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.