Gov. John Bel Edwards visits board of regents 082218

Gov. John Bel Edwards tells Board of Regents Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, that higher education remains a priority. But he didn't commit to spending more money on colleges and universities.

Gov. John Bel Edwards told the state Board of Regents on Wednesday that Louisiana's financial outlook is much improved but stopped short of promising a hike in state aid for colleges and universities next year.

"Quite frankly we are in a relatively good place today," Edwards told the panel during 10 minutes of remarks.

The governor noted that, for just the second time in the past decade, state dollars for colleges and universities held steady this year after repeated rounds of reductions in the past  decade.

"Just think how great when we start re-investing in higher education," Edwards said.

"We can't say education is a priority and then never fund it as a priority," he said. "We have to see an investment in higher education as an investment and not just an expenditure."

After the meeting, Edwards said what he recommends for higher education in 2019 will depend on the state's financial outlook then, including what the Revenue Estimating Conference says.

"As you know in January I present a balanced budget based upon the projections that the REC has and the general fund forecast for next year," he said.

"I would certainly be hopeful of that (increase) but I cannot commit to it now," Edwards said.

"The No. 1 priority for the state will be on the K-12 side," he said, a reference to public schools.

"We have not increased the MFP in terms of the per student allocation in that formula for a number of years," the governor said.

"So that will be the No. 1 priority," he added. "How far we can move beyond that will depend on what the forecast says."

MFP stands for Minimum Foundation Program, which is the mechanism used by the state to allocate aid for about 700,000 public school students statewide.

Basic state aid for schools has been frozen for most of the past decade.

Edwards reiterated that he plans to recommend a 2.75 percent increase in state aid for schools next year, half of which can be used to boost teacher salaries.

A 2.75 percent annual increase, and more, used to be common until the state started grappling with recurring budget problems in 2009.

Robert Levy, chairman of the Board of Regents, told the governor and others in the audience that colleges and universities desperately need an injection of new dollars.

"I continue to believe we cannot ask colleges to do more with less," said Levy, who lives in Ruston.

He said state aid for higher education "must finally be a priority."

Earlier this year Edwards and the Republican-controlled Legislature agreed on a tax and spending plan that included a standstill budget for colleges and universities, and full funding for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS.

The agreement followed multiple failures in a series of special sessions aimed at repairing state finances.

Edwards told the Regents he hopes to strengthen Louisiana's online college offerings, in part to address the large number of residents who have some college experience but not a degree.

That goal is a frequent topic for Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

Sullivan was in the audience when Edwards addressed the Regents.

The governor noted that there is little new construction on college campuses aside from work funded by student fees or through major donations.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.