Nov. 17, 2016 02:04 PM
College campuses that escaped cuts after years of financial slashing are once again on the chopping block, with Gov. John Bel Edwards planning an $18 million reduction to higher education to help close a state budget deficit.

The cut, which equals about 2 percent of colleges' general state financing, is contained in a package of budget adjustments sought by the governor to offset a more than $300 million gap left from the last fiscal year.

Edwards is proposing to reshuffle some financing, tap into available pots of money and make cuts. The largest piece of the plan involves delaying $152 million in payments to health providers that care for Medicaid patients. The payments will be shifted into the next fiscal year.

Legislative leaders were briefed on the proposal ahead of a Friday presentation to the joint House and Senate budget committee. All but $36 million of the cuts can be made without legislative approval.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, said the deficit-closing plan is "not going to cause any devastation to higher education and health care."

"It certainly eases the pain in the distribution of it," Alario said.

House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said more conversation was needed about individual parts of the plan.

Statewide elected officials would be spared cuts, as would the transportation department, the prison system and the tourism agency. The governor's executive department, the education department, the veterans affairs agency and the public safety department would be hit with reductions.

The deficit is from the budget year that ended June 30, when state income fell below projections. Further shortfalls are expected in the current 2016-17 budget year, because tax collections and other sources of state revenue aren't coming in as expected.

The governor's chief budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, asked the staff of the Bond Commission on Thursday to start looking into whether a state debt refinancing could help Louisiana save some money.

Dardenne said the Edwards administration hasn't decided if it will pursue the maneuver, but wants to investigate all possibilities for savings.

Louisiana refinanced debt earlier this year to generate $82 million in quick cash for the budget. The decision added long-term costs to state debt repayment. At the time, the state's financial adviser recommended against doing the same maneuver again.