Edwards at UL board 120519

Gov. John Bel Edwards prepares to address the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors on Dec. 5, 2019.

After nearly a decade of cuts and standstill budgets, Gov. John Bel Edwards Wednesday promised board members overseeing the state’s largest collection of public universities that his upcoming state spending plan will include more money for higher education.

“You can rest assured that the executive budget that I present to the Legislature will contain an increase in funding for higher education,” Edwards told the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors during a 17-minute address, his first to higher education officials after winning reelection last month. His second term begins in January.

Edwards will be presenting his proposed executive budget in February, as constitutionally required, and it will serve as the base document from which legislators will draft the law that dictates how much state government will spend from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.

Edwards couldn’t say Thursday how much more. An exact figure will have to wait until after the state Revenue Estimating Conference establishes the amount of money state government will have available next fiscal year. The REC is meeting next week.

The University of Louisiana System has nine four-year institutions, including University of Louisiana at Lafayette, University of New Orleans and Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. The schools have about 91,000 students and offer more than 700 academic degree programs.

Louisiana led the nation during the past decade as some states governments deeply cut contributions to their public colleges and universities. Previous Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican struggling with a sharp decrease in state revenues, slashed state appropriations to higher education in half rather than raise taxes.

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The policies led to schools limiting course offerings, faculty leaving and buildings falling into disrepair. Students had to cover much of the drop in state support leading to the doubling of tuition at four-year schools – to the tune of about $4,800 more – between 2008 and 2018.

When Edwards, a Democrat, took office in 2016, he put the brakes on the annual cutting of higher education budgets. But he was only able to add additional funding – about $47 million this fiscal year – after chronic revenue shortfalls ended with a negotiated settlement that raised the state sales tax, suspended tax exemptions and cut spending, stabilized the budget until 2025.

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Louisiana still has one of the lowest expenditures per student in the country.

“I want you to be less concerned about how we are going to pay the bills, because that’s what y’all had to do for a long, long time,” Edwards told the board members. “You’re still going to be more resource constrained than you want to be but you’re going to be less concerned about how you pay the bills and keep the lights on.”

Instead, Edwards wanted the UL Board to focus on higher education initiatives. In particular, he mentioned university leaders could work on “dual enrollment,” which allows high schoolers to take college classes for credit, as well as efforts to help older students return to college and finish their degrees.

Edwards also asked university leaders to come up with more money to pay enough to attract and retain faculty. “I am encouraging you all to find ways to make sure that you’re better able to pay your faculty,” he said.

“I wish I had more resources than we have because it’s not possible for me to do what I would like to do,” Edwards said.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.