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Louisiana University Leaders at Odds over Budget Plans

BATON ROUGE, La. —  Tensions surfaced Tuesday over the Board of Regents’ plans for divvying up dollars among Louisiana’s public colleges as university leaders face lost money for certain campuses.

The board is proposing to split about $1 billion in state funding based on its performance-based formula, which considers graduation rates, skills training for high-need job areas and other benchmarks — rather than doling out dollars solely on student enrollment.

The formula was designed when state funding for higher education was increasing. Now, with repeated drops in state financing, university leaders are at odds about how the formula hits their campuses.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget proposal for 2012-13 would send all the state money to the board to divide, rather than allocating money to the four individual university systems.

System chiefs complained to the House Appropriations Committee that they only had three days to see how the Board of Regents decided to distribute the money.

“We’re probably a little frustrated that we didn’t get to participate,” said University of Louisiana System President Randy Moffett.

The biggest percentage reduction would fall on the Southern University System.

Southern University System President Ronald Mason said the cut could harm the ability of the university’s main campus in Baton Rouge to recover from its declaration of financial emergency in the current fiscal year.

Mason said the campus needs “a year of breathing room to dig itself out and put in place many of the revenue measures we think will work for us. We need time to be able to build back from there.”

Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin questioned why university leaders said last year that they supported the performance-based funding formula and now have complaints.

“Last year everyone said they were part of it,” said Fannin, D-Jonesboro. “I asked if you could live with it and you said you could, and now this year I think I’m hearing something different.”

Moffett said the formula was devised to create incentives for campuses to improve their performance, but instead it is being used to cut budgets.

“Therefore, you’re going to create tension over that distribution,” Moffett said. State funding has been cut more than $380 million since 2008. Rising tuition and fees have covered part, but not all, of the gap since then.

Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell, who leads the Regents office, said while university leaders only had a few days to see next year’s distribution before it was submitted to lawmakers and the governor, they knew the model and what type of funding they could expect.

Mason said the performance formula can be a catch-22 for a school such as Southern in Baton Rouge. Tuition increases set in law are tied to improved performance, as is the state funding division. But Mason said it’s hard to boost outcomes when the campus is losing dollars.

Fannin and other lawmakers said they were concerned about funding cuts to research facilities, such as the agricultural centers at Louisiana State University. Committee members questioned whether the Regents’ proposed division of higher education money penalizes the facilities because they don’t have students and don’t receive tuition dollars.

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