Hammered by budget cuts over nearly a decade, Louisiana's public colleges are staring down the threat of another round of slashing in a state with one of the least-educated populations in the country.
Higher education leaders pleaded for funding Wednesday before state lawmakers on a House budget committee where Republicans regularly talk of needing to reduce government spending more deeply.
Louisiana spends $700 million less annually on its public colleges than it did in 2008. University system officials received no assurances their campuses would be protected from further reductions in the budget year that begins July 1.
Frustration was evident.
"The challenge that we have — and have had for some time, continue to have — is an inability to communicate the message effectively that an investment in our institutions represents an investment in the people of Louisiana and creates taxpayers," said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo said college campuses have 5,000 fewer employees than when the cuts began. Officials described trouble recruiting faculty, lost research grants, stymied salaries that make campuses uncompetitive, ballooning class sizes and eliminated programs.
College cuts spanned the eight years of the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who backed tax reductions and boosted tax breaks as he pursued an unsuccessful bid for president.
His successor, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, said he'd protect higher education, but he and lawmakers cut colleges by $12 million this year to close a deficit. Edwards' budget plan would cut another $17 million in state funding for campuses next year and maintain cuts to the TOPS college tuition program — unless lawmakers agree to raise taxes as he proposes.
Republicans in the majority-GOP Legislature are showing resistance to the governor's tax proposals and to raising more money for state government spending.
"This will be our 17th cut in nine-and-a-half years. I don't think any other state has seen anything of such consistency" said F. King Alexander, president of the Louisiana State University System. "We've become a poaching ground for other universities."
Students are paying $600 million more in tuition and other charges this year than they did when the cuts began, according to House fiscal data. That hasn't covered all the gaps, and it comes as health care, retirement and mandated costs grew over the same period, carrying a price tag of $120 million more this year than in 2008, according to the Board of Regents.
The financing flip-flop is stark. State financing provided two-thirds of Louisiana's public college budget in 2008. That's fallen to around a third today.
Alexander said LSU's main campus in Baton Rouge is 46th in state financing for the country's 50 flagship institutions. But he added with pride that LSU is 24th among those campuses in its graduation rate.
"Y'all just help us more, and we'll do better," he told lawmakers.
Rep. Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat, said lawmakers have to look to taxes to help improve the outlook for higher education and to educate its future workforce.
"More and more we recognize that our economy's based on knowledge. We're 49th in educational attainment and we're last or 49th in funding," he said. "You have some magic pill that's going to help us get to the state that we say we want to be?"
Rallo replied: "You have to fund (higher education) as an investment, not a cost."
Rep. John Schroder, a Republican from Covington, pushed back on the tax hike talk, citing Louisiana's ongoing recession and unemployment rate among the top in the nation.
"Until this economy rebounds, we're in a bad spot," he said. "It's hard to raise revenue on folks that are losing their jobs."
Amid hours of testimony about budget woes that are little changed from prior years, Leger said: "This hearing gives me a headache every year. I'm sorry. It's just horrific."