Nov. 18, 2016 01:29 PM
Gov. John Bel Edwards agreed Friday to postpone budget cuts for another month, as lawmakers pushed to spare college campuses from the slashing needed to close a $313 million deficit.

The Democratic governor had planned a package including another $18 million cut to higher education, equivalent to a 2 percent reduction to the colleges' general state financing. That would be in addition to the $700 million in financing cuts to state campuses since 2008.

Lawmakers urged his administration to reconsider, noting that lawmakers have already cut spending on the TOPS program for the first time this year, breaking a promise to provide free college tuition to Louisiana's higher-performing students. Come spring, the scholarships will only cover about 42 percent of tuition costs.

"I just want to make sure we have done all we can before we cut higher education again," Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, told the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Edwards could make the cuts without a legislative vote, but Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget architect, said Edwards "will of course hold off on doing anything" while negotiations continue.

The entire budget-rebalancing plan was shelved until December. By then, the budget hole only is expected to grow worse.

The $313 million deficit is from the budget year that ended June 30, when state income fell below projections, mainly driven by continuing employment declines that are hammering Louisiana's tax collections.

An additional shortfall — ranging from $100 million to $500 million — is expected in the current 2016-17 budget year, because tax collections and other sources of state revenue aren't coming in as expected, Dardenne said. It's impossible to shield colleges from these budget pressures, since higher education is one of the largest recipients of state financing, he said.

"We're not going to have the luxury of sparing higher education. I wish we did," Dardenne said.

Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, urged the Edwards administration to take aim at the health department instead, saying its proposed net cut of $12 million is a much smaller share of its state financing than the cuts aimed at higher education.

"I don't think that's shared burden," he said.

Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, an ally of the governor, said he is frustrated that lawmakers regularly complain about the types of cuts being made — but don't offer ideas for either raising new money or shrinking spending.

"Often what happens here is people say, 'I don't like your plan, but I don't have one,'" Morrell said. Whether cuts were made Friday or in December, "somebody's going to get hurt," he added.

Edwards also proposed to reshuffle some financing, tap into available pots of money and make other reductions to state agencies. The largest piece involves delaying $152 million in payments to health providers that care for Medicaid patients until the next fiscal year.