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With yellow caution tape restricting the use of every other seat for social distancing and wearing masks, people wait to testify before the House Appropriations Committee as the regular legislative session reopens Monday May 4, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. Half of the committee members were in the Room 5 and the other half were in Room 6 to provide distancing during hearings.

The system presidents of Louisiana's public colleges and universities presented their case to the House Appropriations Committee on Friday that future cuts on higher education in the state's upcoming budget would produce further damage in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Louisiana's institutions are facing a "great unknown," the presidents said, a fiscal year that could see substantial revenue losses due to diminished enrollment, ongoing COVID-19-related expenses and potentially altered athletic activities.

The much-needed federal aid Louisiana's four public university systems received from the CARES Act — about $113 million total in institutional related funds — is still not enough to cover the anticipated losses the schools will accrue in the upcoming year, the presidents said, and the systems cannot afford additional cuts from their annual state appropriations.

The Legislature is pegged to finish its 2020 session on June 1, and it must submit its statewide budget by June 30.

"We're all here today to urge you that as you work through these important budgetary decisions," interim LSU System President Tom Galligan said. "It's vital that you make higher education a top priority to ensure our continue excellence."

The state's appropriation for higher education was cut by about 60% during the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal from 2008 to 2016, and, subsequently, universities and colleges increased the price of tuition and fees to make up for the loss on their budgets.

State funding dropped 68.5% in Fiscal 2009 to 36.3% in Fiscal 2018, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents, and the funding has stabilized under Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The state committee shouldn't focus on a short-term crisis, University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson said, when financing school systems that produce a long-term work force that becomes part of Louisiana's tax base.

The systems are already facing rocky financial times.

Even after CARES Act funds, the LSU System has taken an $18.4 million dollar loss this year due to COVID-19 expenses, and Galligan said the system expects to accrue even more expenses as the year continues.

And although the UL, Southern and Louisiana'a Community and Technical Colleges systems are still in the black, there's little optimism that the storm is over.

"There are so many other variables to consider when you're thinking of bringing students back to campus in terms of cost," Southern System President-Chancellor Ray Belton said, "that there's still some in doubt about being able to stabilize our budgets."

Belton said as unemployment rates are rising, the Southern System has heard feedback from several families of students who say "they simply do not have the resources for their students to return to college."

Belton said the Southern System could expect potentially a 15% drop in enrollment in the coming academic year.

If enrollment drops, tuition revenue drops, and, since tuition prices make up the majority of school budgets, the results could be challenging.

And, if state appropriations were to also diminish?

"It leaves an institution in a space where we would be challenged to fulfill our roles for the mission as an institution," Belton said. "And that has an impact on whether or not we can responsibly fill those workforce needs of the state."

The system presidents usually meet just once with the appropriations committee every year, and, after the nearly four-hour hearing, most presidents felt their point was made.

"I think that they're going to work to minimize cuts as much as they possibly can," Henderson said. "But the reality is, there's going to be cuts that materialize. Our job is to ensure that they prioritize those cuts as much as possible to advocate strongly for our mission."


Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.