For months, higher education officials have received varying signals about how much of a state budget cut they would absorb. Estimates ranged from 10% or less to 35% or more. But in a March briefing with reporters, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that his staff had found a way to spare colleges and universities entirely.
While schools are losing nearly $290 million in one-time federal money, the administration adds $105 million in state general funds and $98 million in one-time state revenue. Universities already were scheduled to receive an extra $90 million in higher tuition revenue, thanks to legislation passed last year.
“There’s absolutely no reduction from [fiscal year 2011] to FY 12,” Jindal said, referring to total funding for higher ed, an amount that doesn’t count another $98 million to $100 million colleges and universities stand to gain if the governor’s latest package of higher education proposals is approved in the next session.
But LSU Provost Jack Hamilton isn’t ready to take Jindal at his word.
“We’re still trying to figure it out,” Hamilton says of the budget. “The good news is the governor has made a very earnest attempt to try and solve this problem, and we’re very grateful for that.”
Hamilton was tapped for the No. 2 job on the Baton Rouge campus in June 2010, a time when the angst over higher education was near its peak. He knew it wouldn’t be fun, and he’s been LSU’s merchant of gloom ever since, telling anyone who will listen that the flagship could be in serious trouble.
The budget picture has improved in recent months, and Jindal has made a point of emphasizing his attempts to protect higher education and health care, two areas traditionally exposed to cuts in tough times. But like any budget for a $25 billion operation, this one has a lot of moving parts.
“I’m not confident all the gears are going to work together,” says State Sen. Dan Claitor, a Baton Rouge Republican, whose district includes LSU.
Any significant budget change is going to offend some constituency or another. The possible sale of three prisons already is controversial. State workers could be denied raises and see their take-home pay reduced, and almost 1,800 filled positions could be eliminated. Some funds meant to promote tourism and economic development might be cut. Jindal also has proposed constitutionally dedicating an extra $43 million of tobacco settlement money to TOPS, which would free general fund dollars.
“I don’t mean to be crying wolf or anything,” Claitor says. “But with the contingencies that are in the budget, I think it’s still highly uncertain where we are.”
A March 16 faculty forum with LSU Chancellor Mike Martin had fewer people in attendance and was less acrimonious than some previous meetings, which might suggest that faculty members are not as concerned as they have been.
The discussion touched on the Louisiana Flagship Coalition, a group backed by powerful business leaders. LSU officials can’t hire lobbyists to plead their case at the Capitol, but the coalition can, and has. The group is pushing to cut the red tape that universities face in purchasing, money management and other areas, which they say could save tens of millions over five years at LSU-Baton Rouge alone. Jindal backs many of its proposals.
One faculty member brought up last year’s LA GRAD Act, whereby universities were given some tuition flexibility while agreeing to certain performance measures. LSU benefits from that exchange, but the faculty member wondered what the school might have to give up were the Flagship Coalition’s money-saving proposals realized.
“I’m not going to predict that we are the best players of the political game,” Martin said. “I also think we have to keep trying. … In the world we live in today, to some extent money talks, and to some extent political influence talks, and we need to align ourselves with those people who will bring their resources and their influence to bear on our behalf.”
LSU’s annual Louisiana Survey wasn’t especially encouraging to those who believe in the flagship agenda. When presented with the proposition that the state should have a leading university, even if it means cuts to other universities, 48% disagreed and only 37% agreed.
Coalition co-chair Sean Reilly suggests the question’s wording influenced the results. The coalition’s proposals would save every university money, he says, and would not benefit LSU at anyone else’s expense. But some people fear legislators will use the savings to justify cuts in general fund appropriations.
There’s also the broader question of whether lawmakers really consider a top-flight flagship university to be a state priority.
“I get mixed signals on that,” says Rep. Franklin Foil, a Baton Rouge Republican. “I think that almost everyone you speak to will tell you they believe in a flagship agenda, but the support is not always there on the legislation.”
Students already face a 10% tuition increase in the fall. Many won’t have to pay that money directly; taxpayers will foot the bill through the TOPS program. New proposals would allow schools to charge for up to 15 hours of classes, up from the current limit of 12, and index their operational fee to tuition.
On paper, an extra dollar of tuition makes up for a dollar of state general funds. In reality, LSU doesn’t keep the whole tuition dollar; it gives up some of that money through scholarship and financial aid programs. The university also will pay about $10.5 million in increased mandated costs, which include retirement benefits.
The tuition hikes that colleges already have been granted likely won’t be enough if they are going to avoid making further cuts to their programs. They might need the total package, including the governor’s tuition and fee increases and the Flagship Coalition’s proposed efficiencies.
In the meantime, Reilly, Hamilton and everyone else involved in higher ed will no doubt be keeping their guard up.