Colleges get shaky start in Jindal budget

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Though Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget recommendations would keep higher education at status quo funding next year, public colleges are far from sitting pretty in the spending proposal.

Instead, Jindal’s $24.7 billion budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year positions Louisiana’s colleges as a pawn in an ongoing political chess match and continues to shift a greater cost-share to students and their parents.

The Republican governor and his advisers have repeatedly said Jindal’s budget proposal includes no cuts to higher education.

That’s true when all sources of funding are included.

What Jindal fails to note is that his budget cuts state financing for the colleges and universities – while offsetting that cut with $75 million in tuition increases already passed by lawmakers.

In other words, state spending on higher education continues to shrink.

The governor and lawmakers have stripped more than $625 million in state financing from public colleges since 2008, according to data from the Board of Regents. That appears all but certain to increase with the next budget, which lawmakers will craft in the regular session that begins April 8.

As he proposes to further shrink state funding to higher education, Jindal’s also positioned the schools at the heart of an ongoing political battle he has with conservative House Republicans, called the “fiscal hawks.”

The fiscal hawks disagree with the governor’s use of one-time money, like from land deals and legal settlements, to pay for ongoing programs and government services. They say when the dollars disappear after the year they’re used, that creates a scramble to fill the newly-created budget gap, continuing a cycle of regular budget shortfalls.

Jindal’s budget drops $424 million in piecemeal financing into higher education, leaving colleges mired in the annual legislative debate over the appropriate ways to craft the state’s budget.

If the fiscal hawks are successful in stripping all or part of the patchwork money, higher education could be on the chopping block. Without those dollars, colleges would face a 19 percent hit to their funding, according to the governor’s Division of Administration.

Perhaps Jindal administration budget planners assumed that by plugging all that one-time money into higher education, college officials would help plead the administration’s case for using the financing.

Or maybe administration leaders think lawmakers would be less likely to strip dollars from colleges than from other areas of state government.

To explain the use of the piecemeal financing, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols told lawmakers that it makes no sense to make deeper cuts to the state budget if available dollars can be used to fill the gap.

That argument has been successful in past sessions, with a majority of lawmakers voting against the fiscal hawks and supporting Jindal.

If the governor’s administration is again successful in outmaneuvering the fiscal hawks, the sources of financing assumed in the governor’s budget for higher education still are far from a done deal.

They are based on land sales, debt repayments and other arrangements that haven’t happened yet. Some pots of money used in Jindal’s budget are subject to continuing disagreements with lawmakers and others, making them far from certain to pan out.

For example, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and area lawmakers vow to fight plans that would take $100 million from the city convention center’s reserve fund and plug it into the state’s budget for higher education. The Jindal administration pledges to backfill the money from the state’s construction budget, but the pool of money for construction work has its own shortages and uncertainties.

Higher education leaders largely have been mum about the shaky financing poured into their schools, since Jindal’s budget was unveiled more than a week ago.

After years of budget slashing, any money that appears to keep colleges and universities at an even keel is about the best many higher education officials believe they can get from this governor and this Legislature.

Right now, it’s uncertain if they’ll even get that.

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