- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s higher education leaders argued their value to the state’s economy as they urged state lawmakers Wednesday to keep campuses from deep cuts next year.

Under the most dire scenario, colleges could face cuts nearing $600 million - a reduction of 82 percent of their state financing. College system presidents said that would shutter some campuses and cripple those that could remain open.

“A budget cut of this magnitude just changes the whole narrative. You just can’t do it,” Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo told the House Appropriations Committee. He said with the worst-case cuts, “several of our institutions would not be viable.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s higher education budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would cut more than $220 million from campuses while relying on $372 million from tax break changes that need legislative approval and face resistance from lawmakers.

College leaders want the authority to raise tuition and fees without needing legislative approval, the flexibility to set differing tuition rates by program and freedom to make some spending decisions away from government bureaucracy.

But if lawmakers agree to those proposed changes, system presidents said that won’t be enough to offset even the smaller gap. They’re asking lawmakers to find ways to shift more money to the schools.

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said lawmakers need to view funding for colleges as an investment for the state.

“I don’t think the institutions represented at this table are part of the budget problem. We are much more, in my view, a part of the revenue solution. The students who graduate from our institutions are the folks who go to work in Louisiana, stay right here in the state, are productive citizens and are able to contribute back to that tax base,” he said.

Lawmakers on the committee offered few solutions beyond tuition hikes for drumming up new cash for colleges. But many said they wanted to stop the deep slashing as they work to craft their version of next year’s budget.

“We need to make it very clear this legislative session that we’re going to save our institutions so that our students have places to go,” said Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, said: “I don’t think anybody here thinks higher education can take an 82 percent cut.”

Any new reductions would fall on top of $700 million in state financing cuts to campuses since 2008. Higher education leaders Wednesday described increased class sizes, difficulty recruiting faculty and thousands of eliminated jobs.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said Louisiana is short of the trained workers needed for announced state economic development projects. She said colleges need to produce graduates to fill the gap.

“We know we’re not doing enough, and the lack of resources and the declining resources over the past eight years and - more importantly even than that - the uncertainty about funding every single year has impacted our ability to be responsive,” Woodley said.

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