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2010 December 29 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Jindal Discusses Budget with La. College Leaders

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal sat down with college leaders to discuss next year’s budget shortfall, after receiving criticism he’s spent too much time traveling and promoting his book and not enough on the state’s financial troubles.

Among the ideas offered, higher education officials recommended that students pay higher fees to help offset some of the budget cuts. Jindal said he’ll consider that proposal and other suggestions to give campuses more management flexibility to cope with reductions. No final decisions were made about what Jindal would support.

Jindal’s meeting with college officials was the first of several gatherings the governor has planned with “stakeholders” in the budget discussion.

Those include people who want to offer thoughts for how to cope with the $1.6 billion budget shortfall facing the state in the 2011-12 fiscal year — or at least want some insight into what Jindal will recommend for the budget year starting July 1.

“This is an opportunity to share ideas. Everything is going to be on the table. We’re going to talk about how we work together,” the Republican governor said.

Jindal described the conversations as a way to get suggestions, but it’s also clear the meetings are designed to combat complaints that he has focused too much on out-of-state campaigning and on touting his book “Leadership and Crisis.”

The discussion with higher education officials follows Jindal’s suggestion that previous rounds of budget cuts weren’t as bad as they’ve been portrayed by college leaders.

In recent speeches, the governor has said it’s not that college and university budgets can’t be reduced, but that administrators need to find efficiencies and trim unnecessary spending. He’s talked of a need for leaders to stop whining, and his administration has said tuition and fee hikes on students have offset a large portion of college budget cuts so far.

That rhetoric was missing as the governor and college officials talked about finding common ground, having an unfiltered conversation and considering ways to reduce the impact of cuts on campuses.

Randy Moffett, president of the University of Louisiana System, said the group talked about a need “to get on the same page in terms of message.” Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May said the meeting moved past “broad rhetoric” and focused on specific ideas offered by higher education leaders to improve their budget situation.

“The governor was very clear I think in everything he stated that he wants to be sure that at the end of the day we have not done catastrophic damage to higher education,” said LSU System President John Lombardi. “What we have here is a commitment to work with us to see if we can’t get this down to some reasonable level that’s survivable. Will it still be painful? Yes.”

College officials have said the cuts already made to state funding of colleges — $310 million since the reductions began two years ago — have forced program closures, the loss of student services and fewer educational opportunities for students.

They’ve said the cuts looming for the next fiscal year — estimates range from $290 million to $500 million — would be devastating.

After the meeting, Lombardi said he’s confident the cuts won’t reach the $500 million mark, and Jindal agreed.

The state is estimated to be short $1.6 billion in state general fund income next year to continue all current services and account for annual increases in health care and retirement costs and inflation.

The state is spending about $7.6 billion in general fund money this year in the budget of more than $25 billion.

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