- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s public colleges have been asked to prepare for cuts totaling as much as $131 million across campuses in the next five months, in case lawmakers and the governor don’t agree on ways to raise revenue to fill a deep budget gap.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, asked for the budget cut proposals in a letter to the state’s higher education leaders this week. LSU System President F. King Alexander released the letter in an online posting Friday and described it in an email to university system employees.

Alexander said LSU’s statewide operations would take a $65 million hit under the scenario. He said that type of reduction could force hundreds of employee layoffs, large reductions to medical services at LSU facilities and closures of agriculture extension services.

“These are catastrophic cuts,” he said in a call with reporters. He added: “We will do everything we can to protect instruction, but when the cuts get so severe there’s no way to protect instruction.”

Dardenne said the reductions could be necessary to balance this year’s budget, if lawmakers don’t agree to raise taxes or find other ways to generate new money to close a gap estimated at more than $700 million.

Edwards has proposed a list of tax options for lawmakers to consider in a special legislative session expected to begin Feb. 14.

“We are in for a long legislative season that will generate troubling news stories,” Alexander wrote to employees. “I remain confident that we have demonstrated our significant worth to Louisiana and that our state will continue to prioritize our work.”

Such a cut to higher education represents about 18 percent of the total state funds provided to campuses this year. The slashing would be worsened by the compressed time period since less than half the budget year remains.

The $131 million cut to colleges assumes lawmakers will agree to tap into Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund, redirect oil spill settlement money from legislative earmarks and make across-the-board cuts to protected budget areas.

That would still leave a gap, unless lawmakers agree to raise revenue.

“We obviously will look at further reductions in all departments and agencies receiving state general fund dollars, but, unfortunately, the brunt of this shortfall will hit higher education and health care,” Dardenne wrote.

Dardenne asked the LSU System to prepare for half the higher education cuts. The Southern University System would get 6 percent of the reductions, the University of Louisiana System would take 29 percent and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System would get about 15 percent.

Edwards, a Democrat, is proposing to use tax hikes to fill the remaining gap rather than cutting colleges and health services, but it isn’t clear whether the majority Republican Legislature will agree.

The governor also is asking lawmakers to consider increasing an array of taxes to help balance next year’s budget, estimated to be as much as $1.9 billion short to continue current government programs and services.

Without new revenue next year, colleges would again be threatened with steep cuts.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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