BATON ROUGE, La. ― Higher education leaders pushed back Wednesday at suggestions they are exaggerating the impact budget cuts will have on their campuses, saying the threat of midsemester shutdowns and widespread layoffs is real.
Lawmakers meeting in a special session are deciding whether to raise taxes requested by Gov. John Bel Edwards to help fill deep gaps in this year’s budget. Without those tax hikes, the Edwards administration says colleges could be hit with more than $200 million in cuts.
Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo told the House Appropriations Committee if that worst-case scenario happens, many campuses likely will suspend operations and cancel classes. University system presidents agreed.
“We will lose locations. We will reduce services. It’s a reality,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “We will be in a position where we will not be able to sustain the institutions we have today.”
Lawmakers, particularly Republicans who are showing resistance to tax increases, have bristled at headlines claiming campuses could close, students could be unable to graduate or finish courses and LSU’s football season could be canceled because the student athletes wouldn’t meet academic requirements.
“I promise you that hell will freeze over before LSU doesn’t go into Tiger Stadium this fall,” said Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro. “I think it’s juvenile to even come up with something like that.”
Pylant and several other committee members said the state has to look at structural changes before considering tax increases.
Higher education officials said they’ve consolidated and eliminated programs, reduced duplications and cut staff over the past eight years ― and they noted lawmakers would have to make the larger structural changes being discussed, not the campuses.
For now, they said, they’re just trying to survive the cuts without shutting their doors before the state financial year ends June 30, and without losing the faculty, students and student athletes who may not want to stick around while the debate lingers.
“When you run out of payroll, the lights go out and you have to figure out all kinds of alternatives which we are struggling through every day,” said LSU System President F. King Alexander. “Right now, this is a crisis.”
Under the best-case scenario, public colleges face cuts of at least $70 million over the next four months. And that’s if lawmakers agree to all Edwards’ proposed tax hikes.
Rallo outlined to lawmakers what he considers several “myths” that he said wrongfully suggest the reductions won’t really be that harmful. He said tuition and fee increases haven’t fully covered the $700 million in state financing cuts that have been made to campuses since 2008. He said the campuses aren’t hiding money in large reserve pools.
Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Gonzales, said lawmakers are struggling with limited dollars, but he said he’s hopeful they’ll find a way to keep colleges from shutting their doors.