Legislature 'running out of time' to prevent devastating budget cuts; sales tax key issue _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU President F. King Alexander, left, chats with Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, right, before the start of Monday's meeting of the Louisiana House. The Special Session, aimed at balancing the budget, ends at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The threat of Louisiana’s colleges and universities having to shut down in the middle of the school year is mostly over, but the potential for painful cuts to student services remains as the Legislature continues its work to close the state budget shortfall.

The doomsday scenario was touted many times this past month by Gov. John Bel Edwards and higher education leaders, who warned severe midyear budget cuts to schools would result in institutions running out of payroll dollars by as early as April and May, and students being unable to finish the academic school year. If students were issued “incompletes” for the year, officials warned, it meant student-athletes, like LSU’s football team, would be ineligible for the following school year.

The cut to higher education has been estimated for the past three weeks to land anywhere from $70 million to more than $200 million, depending on how much of the $900 million state budget shortfall the Legislature would be able to close.

Now with only a couple days left before the special session ends, the Legislature has closed much of that gap, meaning higher education leaders are preparing for an $86 million share of the cut. That number could shrink, if lawmakers quickly find additional revenue or more budget cuts.

Schools submitted their plans on Monday to the Board of Regents for the updated budget scenario, which still include dire setbacks, including layoffs, furloughs and eliminating some summer programs.

But, according to the documents, schools within the three university systems — LSU, Southern University and University of Louisiana — will, at a minimum, stay open through the year, allowing students to finish or graduate. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System’s plan was not yet published, and President Monty Sullivan said closures were still on the table for their schools.

LSU President F. King Alexander on Monday confirmed that the universities in his system would be able to stay open through the end of the year but that the cuts still could be severe.

“It’s not the drastic scenario, but it’s still really, really going to hurt,” Alexander said. “It’s going to be layoffs, all kinds of layoffs, and we might have to close an AgCenter station or two.”

Most critically, the LSU Health Sciences Center Shreveport reported it wouldn’t make payroll in June under the budget scenario, according to the LSU budget.

Cuts would be made to “critical student services,” such as academic advisement, tutoring and financial aid counseling, which would hurt low-income students.

Cami Geisman, a spokeswoman for the University of Louisiana system, which includes the University of New Orleans, Louisiana Tech University and Grambling State University, said, “It would be very tough on our institutions, but we don’t anticipate anything closing.”

Earlier this year, it was reported that Nicholls State University would have to shut down early, even under the best-case scenario budget cuts. But the university president walked the claim back, saying it was merely a possibility.

But the cuts do mean hundreds of furloughs and layoffs across virtually every campus.

At UNO, officials would consider filing for exigency, which would allow tenured faculty to be laid off.

Sullivan, who oversees the 13 community and technical colleges across the state, said unlike the universities, he doesn’t believe the two-year schools are safe from closure under the updated budget scenario.

“There are some institutions that would cease operations,” Sullivan said. “That could be individual programs shutting down, or it could be class offerings that aren’t available. It’s a real set of circumstances.”

Southern University campuses also would endure widespread furloughs, affecting all nontenured faculty and staff paid more than $30,000, according to the budget plan. Schools also would reduce the number of courses available during summer school, and student aid services and personnel.

Southern University officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but their budget projections did not call for campus closures.

While the worst-case scenario of early school closures is largely off the table, higher education leaders are still urging lawmakers to further shield campuses from additional damage. Colleges and universities already have lost 55 percent of the state aid they received in the past eight years.

The system presidents and Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo sent a letter to legislators Monday calling the consequences of inaction “catastrophic.”

“Layoffs, furloughs and cancellation of classes are not an exaggeration but an imminent reality, unless the Legislature acts swiftly and decisively to address the looming cuts to higher education,” the letter states. “These cuts will most certainly lead to catastrophic results across the state, unless the Legislature finds a solution to the remaining midyear budget deficit.”

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