With the state facing down a budget shortfall that could potentially reach $2 billion, legislators and a new advocacy group brought a wide array of gripes and requests Thursday to the Board of Regents. The two dozen or so lawmakers gathered at the meeting wanted to know what the board, which oversees the higher education community, plans to do about the $300 million to $430 million in cuts that may be need to be implemented for the next fiscal year that begins July 1.
While the board’s leadership vowed to continue working with the Legislature, other members fired accountability volleys back at the lawmakers in attendance and pushed some of the blame for Louisiana’s budget woes their way.
The Board of Regents was also introduced to College Caucus, a new grassroots effort that’s led by current university students, mostly from LSU in Baton Rouge, and supplemented a membership that includes alumni, elected officials, business leaders and other stakeholders dedicated to “preserving and enhancing the quality of the state’s higher education.”
The new group argued that Louisiana suffers from systemic inefficiencies and low graduation rates, both of which have benefitted little from two years' worth of budget cuts, fewer course offerings and slashed degree programs.
In a two-page letter delivered to board members Thursday, College Caucus outlines expectations of the board, the governor’s office and state Legislature. It also promised that College Caucus will “maintain an active and communicative role with any and all interested stakeholder groups and individuals until a satisfactory and tangible plan for reform is established.”
For the most part, critics contend universities are working too diligently to dodge cuts. During the meeting, LSU System President John Lombardi presented a series of proposals that could translate into $331 million, including:
• Reducing state-funded pass-through funding in the postsecondary education budgets by 21 percent
• Removing the full-time cap of 12 hours for tuition purposes
• Authorizing tuition to reach estimated market price within six years
• Establishing a temporary fiscal stabilization surcharge
According to LSU’s proposal, these measures would reduce the budget reduction from $437 million — the reduction tally education officials are trying to plan for — to $106 million.
The state’s other higher education systems offered words of support as well. “We are not proposing all of these options right now,” says Randy Moffett, president of the University of Louisiana System, which oversees UL-Lafayette. “There is still much discussion to be held between the leaders of the state and our boards. I consider this a blueprint from which we can begin discussions.”
Lawmakers counter that fee and tuition increases will be hard to swallow, especially in an election year.
Some go a step further and contend that universities can absorb more cuts than they’re letting on, reductions that could be easier to identify if the Board of Regents takes on more of a leadership role. “Where is the plan? Why haven’t we received a plan yet from Regents? I haven’t seen a thing,” said state Rep. Joe Harrison, a member of the House Education Committee. “I don’t think Regents is ready to accept what needs to be done.”
Harrison, R-Napoleonville, who was in Washington, D.C., Thursday taking part in a higher education think-tank, added that the creation of new advocacy group for student concerns is a step on the right direction — and a trend that will intensify as the April regular session draws closer. “They should have a major say in this process,” Harrison says. “They’re the ones paying for it all.”