Wearing loose-fitting purple and gold clothing for a steamy morning of schlepping his daughter’s belongings into her dorm, proud father Steven Procopio settled down Wednesday to jambalaya at an LSU Honors College picnic.
LSU President F. King Alexander stepped up to speak to parents and freshmen who make up the largest incoming class for the university’s school for high-achieving students. He talked about “heading in a new direction” — raises were given, new professors were hired for the classes that start Monday.
Nine years of budget cuts meant fewer faculty, untended buildings, higher tuitions and all the other “efficiencies” that came from underfunding higher education. That changed in June when Louisiana lawmakers reversed course and did not touch the state’s contribution to run 14 public universities and 15 community colleges.
That’s this year. Next year state government already is aware it’ll have at least $1 billion less because a penny of the state’s sales tax, which was added to bridge a previous shortfall, is set to expire on June 30, 2018.
Left unsaid in his talk is the billion dollar deficit that rarely strays from Alexander’s mind.
“We have more than a little optimism that we can move forward from here. But the Legislature can take that away in a minute,” Alexander said later.
The looming deficit wasn’t far from Procopio’s mind, either.
As policy director at the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, Procopio closely monitors how state government raises and spends money. He knows how the budgets are put together. Drafters basically put the anticipated revenues on the table, allocate dollars to programs with legal protections, then split what little is left between higher education and health care.
Sixteen times during the past nine years that process meant reducing the state’s appropriation to post-secondary institutions by about $731 million from what was a $1.38 billion contribution in 2009. Lawmakers kept this year’s higher ed support at about $847 million.
Procopio also is aware that the federal government provides most of the bucks for this state’s $29.5 billion annual budget. Louisiana taxpayers contribute $9.6 billion, from which fiscal architects can use only $3.6 billion, because of legal dedications, to balance a budget that next fiscal year will be at least $1 billion short.
The unemotional math means that higher education — by legal protections — is the easiest to cut.
Jim Henderson, who as president of the University of Louisiana System is in charge of nine regional universities and 90,000 students, says he knows the math too, but recent actions indicate lawmakers understand that higher education prepares the next generation of workers and taxpayers.
“I’m confident that our metrics about value will win the day,” Henderson said.
Nevertheless, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne is circulating a three-page spreadsheet detailing what programs could be cut. Public colleges and universities could lose $12.7 million, about 2.5 percent from this year’s appropriation. Dardenne also cautioned that the spreadsheet is true only “if the shadows remain unaltered by the future,” to paraphrase a Dickens ghost’s prognostication of Tiny Tim’s fate.
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Baton Rouge Republican state Rep. Franklin Foil says legislators don’t really have much of a stomach for slashing higher ed budgets again.
“But to keep universities where they are now, we’re going to have to raise additional revenues,” said Foil, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, where the state’s budget begins its legislative trek to law every year.
“That’s going to be difficult,” Foil added.
Reps met with House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, last week to discuss the issue, and Foil came away with the feeling that three or four factions have different ideas on how best to address the “fiscal cliff.”
Any fix that would allow the state’s fiscal structure to routinely provide enough funding would take a few years to kick in. That won’t help the institutions pay the bills for the last six months of 2018 and the first six of 2019, he said.
Still, Foil has been through enough legislative sessions to know that solutions are worked out at the last minute.
Legislators could choose to keep the state sales taxes at five cents, but that solution has attracted negative ire as Louisiana now has the nation’s highest sales tax at an average of 10 cents on every dollar once local levies are added.
Plus, legislators face reelection in 2019, and their usual course of postponing could carry grave political consequences.
“I don’t think they have the willpower to sustain this situation another year,” Procopio said. “I feel pretty confident that somehow this issue is going to be addressed. It may be in a way that I, as PAR’s policy director, think may not be helpful in the long-term, but I remain cautious” — he pauses — “(cautious)-ly optimistic.”