Local higher education spared an even harder hit

Minutes before the final gavel sounded on the state legislative session in Baton Rouge, lawmakers were able to find some middle ground on the Louisiana budget.

And not a moment too soon. The new fiscal year begins today, and the $28 billion-plus state-operating budget takes effect.

As is routine in Louisiana, health care and higher education were targeted for the guillotine. On the House side, lawmakers argued the downward economic trend the rest of the country has been feeling had arrived in the Bayou State and that it was time for Louisianans to learn to do more with less. The Senate, however, reasoned that across-the-board cuts could help thwart some of the bleeding.

The battle would continue – with little input from Gov. Bobby Jindal – until a last-minute compromise was struck. Within minutes of the session’s end, a 55-page budget bill was presented. And, by tapping into Louisiana’s “rainy day” fund teamed with dollars from a Senate-side tax break delay, both programs were spared the expected devastating cuts.

But make no mistake; state-funded programs took hits this year.

On the local front, Nicholls State University and Fletcher Technical Community College are awaiting the final damage.

When lawmakers convened in April, word came down that more than $110 million in cuts were expected.

Thursday’s last-minute deal lessened the blow, but at the outset of the week, the exact amount universities and colleges across the state have been spared was still unknown. A clearer financial picture was expected to emerge by today.

NSU President Stephen Hulbert and Fletcher Chancellor Travis Lavigne are both lauding lawmakers’ decision to dig into “rainy day” monies to spare higher learning.

“Since April, Nicholls State University has implemented a wide-ranging series of personnel and program changes in response to the budget challenges facing higher education in Louisiana,” Hulbert said in a press release Monday. “We are most appreciative of the additional time the university has been given to implement those sweeping changes with the least impact on the students we serve.”

Lavigne echoed that sentiment in the same release. “The Houma-Thibodaux area continues to be recognized as having the lowest unemployment in the state and the country,” he said. “Thanks to the dedication and untiring efforts of our entire legislative delegation and the governor, the amount of funding restored to Fletcher will allow the college to continue to provide for the workforce needs of our growing economy in the state.”

Both schools have made cuts. Deep cuts.

Sadly, the immediate outlook is grim as monies flowing into Louisiana’s economy continue to slow.

Let’s hope lawmakers’ efforts to stem the bleeding is enough as the state Board of Regents crunches numbers and determines the extent of cuts higher education could still face.

Harder choices lay ahead. There’s been discussion of consolidating or downsizing campuses and unifying the state’s four public university systems. One thing’s for certain, given the nation’s gloomy picture, taxpayers and lawmakers are getting a schooling on making ends meet in tough economic times.