Colleges get surprise funding boost

Late last week, after all the haggling and the backroom bargaining that is part of every legislative session was over, Louisiana’s colleges and universities came away with millions of dollars that didn’t seem plausible when legislators first arrived at the State Capitol in early April.

Under a budget compromise agreed upon in the waning hours of the session, legislators were able find more than $40 million in one-time funds to distribute among Louisiana’s four college and university systems.

While the money specially dedicated for higher education isn’t unprecedented in Louisiana, it was somewhat of a surprise to institutions that have seen their share of state funding drop by nearly $650 million — more than 80 percent — over the past five years.

And even though all four of Louisiana’s higher education institutions should benefit from the unexpected boost, legislators from both political parties and from both chambers of the Legislature agreed that they especially wanted to help the Southern University System.

Southern administrators say the system is facing a $7 million budget shortfall in its operating budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. If unfunded mandates are included, the figure rises to $12 million.

A pair of Republican state lawmakers who run two of the most powerful committees in the Legislature said they recognized a need to help a system that has been hit particularly hard by budget cuts.

State Rep. Joel Robideaux, of Lafayette and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and state Sen. Jack Donahue, a Mandeville Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, both said they wanted to find a way to get Southern over an immediate budget crisis.

But people at the State Capitol said the Legislative Black Caucus pushed the hardest to get money for Southern.

Besides the $10 million going to all of the state’s higher education systems, state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, said legislators also were able to secure an extra $2 million for the Southern system and $1.5 million each for Southern’s three academic campuses in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport.

“Our universities have been cut a lot over the last couple of years,” Murray said. “We agreed to give money to the universities in a one-time deal that they have the discretion to use as they see fit. This was particularly important for Southern. … The big thing we wanted to do was save the system so that they could remain open and a viable part” of Louisiana’s higher education community.

Southern System President Ronald Mason said the additional funding “is kind of a bridge” as Southern transitions to a new model.

Southern is banking on a strategy to attract more community college students onto its four-year campuses and an increased push to enroll students in online programs to get out of the financial doldrums caused by state budget cuts and declining student enrollment.

“I guess the Legislature heard our message,” Mason said Friday. “Either we’re going to be an example of the success of this new model, or we’re going to be an example of its failure” as schools rely more and more on tuition revenue instead of state general fund dollars to fund operations.

Legislators also dedicated $5 million and $1 million, respectively, for the LSU and Southern agricultural centers.

It’s too early to know how the extra money for colleges and universities will be used should Gov. Bobby Jindal decide to keep those dollars in the state spending plan called House Bill 1.

But University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said just the fact that the money was included in the final budget bill is a positive sign.

“We are appreciative that many of our legislators took the position that they didn’t want higher education to suffer,” Woodley said. “This was unexpected. It was a nice surprise.”

Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said he anticipates using the money to put a dent in some of his system’s $189 million maintenance backlog, specifically fixing roofs, repairing heating and cooling systems, and making some campuses more accessible for the disabled.

“This was a very positive session overall,” May said. “We saw a different attitude from legislators. We saw that they understand that higher ed is important to the state and they are concerned over the impact the budget can have on us.”