Protests won’t stop college budget cuts

Woodburn residents want stop sign removed
September 7, 2010
Claudis Dalcour
September 9, 2010

A group of University of New Orleans students has reminded state lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal just how nasty and angry the next round of budget cuts will be, getting into a tussle with police as part of a protest about the deep reductions on the horizon.

But those students probably need to brace for the reality that appears to be slowly sinking in with the higher education community: Protests or not, the cuts are coming, and Jindal and Louisiana’s legislators don’t seem to have any plans to stop them.

Jindal opposes any tax increases, House leaders are disinterested in raiding trust funds and everyone who makes the decisions seems resigned to a painful set of cuts that will fall disproportionately on college campuses – and those students who politicians repeatedly call the state’s future.

How frustrating it must be for students to watch their class sizes grow, their professors get laid off, their programs get cut and their services shrink with nothing they can do, except stage a futile protest at a campus where their leaders agree with their outrage.

Last Wednesday, a handful of UNO students barricaded themselves in a classroom building and then led a class walkout and outdoor rally of about 150 students to protest against budget cuts. Two people were arrested in a scuffle at the administration building stemming from the protest.

UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan was sympathetic. “We understand the pain of the students. We have brought that message to the Legislature and the governor not one time, not 10 times, but hundreds of times over the last year and a half,” he said.

And still the budget cuts loom.

On the same day as the UNO protest, House Speaker Jim Tucker was in Monroe telling the local newspaper, The News-Star, that cutting the budget – including the state funding to colleges – is the only option available to lawmakers. He said any available funds to fill gaps have been drained and House members and Jindal won’t agree to raise taxes.

The budget problems are tied to several factors: the national economic woes, a drop in the prices of oil and gas from which the state derives tax and royalty income, and an array of tax breaks approved by lawmakers in recent years.

State general fund revenue is expected to rise next year, but only modestly, not enough to continue the current level of state services or to replace the one-time money scattered throughout agencies. In the 2011-12 fiscal year that begins in 10 months, the state is estimated to be $1.6 billion short of what it would cost to continue current services and cover inflation.

Complicating matters further, economists aren’t sure yet what impact the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will have on state coffers.

Higher education has been hit with $280 million in state budget cuts over the last two years, and another $290 million in federal stimulus money currently filling gaps in campus budgets will fall away July 1.

Lawmakers have warned college leaders that they don’t expect to be able to offset the loss of the stimulus money, and in fact, the cuts for campuses could be even worse. As the state loses more than a billion dollars in stimulus cash propping up various agencies, more dollars may be taken from public colleges to replace stimulus dollars that had been paying for health care services and other state expenses.

Jindal’s top budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, has asked higher education officials to prepare scenarios for what would happen with the loss of their $290 million in federal stimulus funding, plus the loss of another $200-plus million.

Rainwater has said colleges shouldn’t assume they’ll get such a hefty cut. He called it an “exercise” that he’s asking of all agencies so the Jindal administration can prioritize spending and determine where best to slash funding.

But the message is obvious. Deeper cuts are on their way. The question is whether campuses lose $290 million or even more.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.