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2009 May 18 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: La. Lawmakers Aim To Reverse Some College Cuts

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Calling the cuts too severe, lawmakers said they hope to reverse at least a portion of $220 million in budget reductions Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed for Louisiana’s public colleges next year.

College leaders asked for the blow to be softened. But LSU System President John Lombardi went even further, asking lawmakers to reject tax break proposals that could drain further dollars from Louisiana’s coffers and worsen higher education cuts.

“We worry that in the enthusiasm for tax reductions, we might rush ahead and do more when we’re already looking at about $950 million of lost revenue from our previous cycle when we thought we were rich,” Lombardi told the House Appropriations Committee.

When the state was flush with cash, lawmakers, Jindal and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco enacted a series of tax breaks for both businesses and middle- and upper-class individual taxpayers that took dollars away from state income.

Those tax breaks, combined with the impact of the national recession and the drop in oil and gas prices, have left the state with a projected $1.3 billion drop in state general fund revenue in the new budget year that begins July 1.

Lawmakers have filed more than 200 tax break bills to be considered in the legislative session that begins next week, even as Jindal proposes large cuts to health care services and education programs in the 2009-10 fiscal year.

“Now that we’re not rich it doesn’t seem that we ought to give away any more money for a while,” Lombardi said.

To help balance next year’s budget, Jindal proposes a $2.6 billion total higher education budget — about 8 percent less than schools had to spend this year and 14 percent less in state funding. And that’s with an infusion of federal stimulus cash.

University system chiefs said the reductions would be devastating and force them to increase class sizes, cut programs and shrink student services. Commissioner of Higher Education Sally Clausen said the colleges would lay off 2,350 faculty and staff, and she said the cuts would damage the primary drivers of economic development and workforce training in Louisiana.

“This will set a very poor state back by generations,” Clausen said.

Legislators said they are looking at cutting other areas and tapping economic development funds and the state’s “rainy day” fund to avoid some higher education cuts, as they craft a final version of the budget in the next few months.

“We hope that we can give you something better than what you have when we put this budget together,” said Democratic Rep. Patricia Smith.

The college systems are moving ahead with plans to increase tuition costs by up to 5 percent. Those tuition increases would raise at least $30 million for the campuses to help offset cuts. Lawmakers on the House and Senate budget committees will have to approve the tuition hikes before they can take effect.

“So, we tax students more, but then we cut at the same time? I don’t think that’s fair,” said Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.

As proposed, the LSU System would take a $102 million cut, the University of Louisiana System would lose $67 million, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System would be reduced by $29 million, and the Southern University System would be cut nearly $17 million.

The cuts, divvied up by the Board of Regents that oversees public higher education, would start to phase in a reworked higher education funding formula that rewards schools based on certain performance benchmarks — like student graduation rates, curriculum costs and skills training for high-need job areas — rather than doling out dollars solely on student enrollment.

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