Who's to blame? Legislators point fingers over financial plight of Louisiana colleges, universities _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU business and French major Briel Edmonds holds a sign, foreground, as speakers address the crowd of concerned LSU and other university students, at a rally on May 1, 2015, against higher education budget cuts. Edmonds said she had been studying French for many years, and was worried the French program at LSU would be cut.

Coming to terms with the sheer magnitude of the cuts facing Louisiana’s colleges and universities for the current school year, legislators on Wednesday started pointing fingers at who is to blame for the financial mess while spitballing potential ways to save money and keep the doors of the institutions open.

So far, higher education has been dealt its initial $4 million cut, but it is expected to grow to at least $70 million for this fiscal year ending June 30. In a worst-case scenario, one with no new revenue raised, schools would be cut more than $200 million and be forced to shut down before the school year ends.

“It’s our job to do what’s best, and we didn’t do it for eight years,” said state Rep. Dee Richard, of Thibodaux, to higher education leaders. “We passed budgets that were phony and cut higher education to the bone. I apologize for it.” Richard has no party affiliation.

But other legislators pointed the blame back at the leaders of the colleges and universities for what they see as many examples of an unnecessarily expensive and duplicative structure, with universities building new facilities while others go empty, and campuses of different schools being located too closely together.

“The more corn you put in the trough, the more you’re going to eat,” said State Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Delhi. “That’s what we’re seeing here, everyone is trying to fight and protect what’s theirs, but nobody has a plan to say what we can do better than what we’re doing.”

Republican Rep. John Schroder, of Covington, put higher education leaders on the spot to offer just “one bold idea” that could be considered a cost-saving structural reform. Higher education Commissioner Joe Rallo responded that staff is currently working on plans.

“There’s no way in heaven that it doesn’t benefit taxpayers in Louisiana to consolidate,” Schroder said.

Throughout the almost five-hour hearing, legislators posed several questions to higher education leaders that exposed where they may be looking for potential cuts. Most of the ideas floated, which included vague talk of campus mergers, wouldn’t have much of an impact in the current fiscal year.

Baton Rouge Democratic Rep. Pat Smith responded to her colleagues’ veiled jabs at the failed efforts to merge Southern University of New Orleans and the University of New Orleans in 2011, and vowed to continue to fight “the war.”

“I was an instigator of that war,” she said, in opposition of the merger. “I will be the captain, the lieutenant and the major general of the next war if I have to.”

Legislators questioned financial aid officials about what savings would be incurred for making alterations to the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which covers tuition for in-state students who meet midlevel academic benchmarks. One legislator inquired about increasing the GPA requirement from a 2.5 to a 3.0. Another asked about doing away with the $400- and $800-a-year stipends associated with the higher-level TOPS awards for students with higher GPAs. That would only save about $13 million, officials said. Another asked about what impact capping TOPS at 90 percent would look like.

In an effort to avert a worst-case scenario shutdown of campuses across the state around May 1, Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, asked whether classes could be sped up to finish before schools run out of payroll dollars. The idea had little traction among the four heads of the post-secondary systems.

Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Rick Edmonds suggested that the universities who are facing cuts to summer school programs try consolidating programs and funneling students from across the state to a few different campuses that will continue to hold summer classes.

F. King Alexander, LSU president, said they were studying those options, but hoped to keep summer classes open because they tend to be revenue generators for the schools.

Feeling the heat, Rallo tried to dispel what he said are myths about the higher education budget, denying claims that they are using unrealistic “scare tactics” and that colleges and universities have remained unscathed by the past seven years of previous cuts.

He noted that compared with enrollment eight years ago, there are 8,403 more students in Louisiana’s post-secondary schools, but 4,971 less employees. While there’s the perception that schools have entirely saved themselves with higher tuition dollars, there is still $352 million less being spent in classrooms across all of the state’s colleges and universities than eight years ago, Rallo said.

He also disagreed with a frequent criticism that higher education suffers from too many administrators who have bloated salaries.

There are 183 people out of 26,779 employees who earn more than $200,000 — many of whom are athletic coaches, research faculty at Pennington Biomedical or medical professionals at the health science centers.

State Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, said Rallo’s data did little to assuage concerns about high salaries.

“Where I’m from the median income is less than $50,000,” she said. “The way they’d read this is, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re saying almost 200 people make $200,000 or more?’ ”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.