Dig Baton Rouge

Back From the Brink

By Gordon Brillon

Tiger Nation, you can exhale now.

The crisis that stared Louisiana higher education in the face and threatened to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget, potentially crippling LSU and sending its students, alumni and leadership into a panic, has largely been averted.

With the passage of 11 bills earlier this month, the Louisiana House of Representatives managed to find more than the $600 million it promised would go toward closing gaps in Louisiana’s higher education budget. While the budget still lacks the money to fully fund state health care operations, including some areas of LSU’s medical schools in New Orleans and Shreveport, funding for higher education is probably safe.

That was far from the case when Gov. Bobby Jindal released his executive budget in February. Jindal’s budget, which acts as a suggestion and starting point from which the legislature can construct its own spending plan, contained a $387 million overall reduction to higher education that had the possibility of rising to $600 million.

Wild rumors flew, especially around LSU’s campus, about what such cuts would mean.

Construction projects would be canceled. Whole departments and majors would be axed. Mike the Tiger would have to be pimped out for birthday parties and bat mitzvahs just to raise a little cash!

While the consequences of the cuts were never expected to go that far, education and government officials alike acknowledged that if more money was not found, there would be severe consequences for the state’s flagship school.

Addressing a potential worst-case scenario in March, LSU President F. King Alexander said, “This budget reduction is so large, we’d have to furlough everybody for the entire year.”

Alexander maintained clear lines of communication with students and faculty while things were up in the air by using regular email statements and a new LSU Budget website to give updates on news and the school’s lobbying efforts. While encouraging students to remain calm, he emphasized how perilous the cuts could be for the school’s future and rallied them to make their voices heard.

If students did listen to his appeals, it wasn’t for a while.

“It was very frustrating,” said Valencia Richardson, a student activist at LSU. Richardson is a co-president of GeauxVote LSU, an organization that helps students register to vote. When news about cuts to the higher education budget began to circulate, GeauxVote changed its focus and spent the spring semester encouraging students to make their voices heard.

It was not, at first, successful.

Richardson was part of a delegation that also included LSU student government president Clay Tufts and LSU-Alexandria student government president Brandon Crane. They testified before the House Appropriations committee in April about the importance of higher education.

 

Before the hearing, the group participated in a student rally on the steps of the Capitol building, where they were joined by, by Richardson’s estimate, “maybe 10, being generous,” other LSU students.

The paltry showing from Baton Rouge-based LSU students led to difficult questions from the committee, but, Richardson conceded, their concerns were fair.

“The fact LSU students don’t show up is the difference. We’re the flagship, we’re down the freaking road,” Richardson said.

“You have 30,000 people down the road there, how are you going to justify giving them money if they won’t even show up?”

It wasn’t until later that month, when the situation began to look truly dire, that some of those 30,000 began to mobilize. On April 22, just five days after the previous rally, Alexander released a carefully worded statement announcing that LSU was preparing for exigency, an academic equivalent to bankruptcy.

While Alexander emphasized there was still time and that it was only a contingency plan for the worst-case scenario, the threat of exigency finally hammered into students what months of equivocated warnings could not — LSU was in trouble. Real trouble.

GeauxVote, along with LSU’s Alumni Association and other groups, held a second rally just over a week later. This time, LSU showed up.

With the word “exigency” still ringing in their ears, hundreds of LSU students marched to the Capitol chanting slogans like, “No funds, no future,” and “Some cuts never heal.” They were met at the Capitol steps by legislators taking to the podium to promise that they would work to ensure the final budget included all the necessary funding for higher education.

Less than two weeks later, the House passed 11 bills — one which would raise the tax on cigarettes and 10 others that reduce existing tax cuts — which, if made law, will provide enough revenue to fill the gaps in the higher education budget.

Those bills now face the Senate, where they may be expanded to help fund healthcare shortfalls, but are unlikely to be reduced. Legislators may well be more concerned when the bills cross Jindal’s desk, however.

Jindal, like many Republicans across the country, has signed a pledge with Americans for Tax Reform, affirming that he will not accept any tax increase that isn’t accompanied by a tax break elsewhere in the budget. In debate, House members expressed confusion about what is acceptable under the pledge, and some were doubtful the governor would go along with the cigarette tax increase.

Jindal has been positive, yet vague in his recent statements about the budget, applauding the House for finding solutions but saying he will veto if the budget includes a net tax increase.

When he picks up his pen to decide in June, legislators won’t be the only ones holding their breath.

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