BATON ROUGE — Louisiana's higher education leaders are ramping up pressure on state lawmakers, seeking a decision on taxes soon to avert months of financial uncertainty and a last-minute debate before a massive budget shortfall hits.
About $1 billion in temporary sales taxes enacted by lawmakers in 2016 are set to expire July 1 when the new budget year begins.
"We are asking our legislators, please, to firm up the bottom line for higher education, no matter what that looks like, as quickly as they can. Gather in a special session and use that time wisely," LSU System President F. King Alexander wrote in a letter published in The Advocate. "Do it before our Louisiana students are scared out-of-state or, even worse, change their minds about going to college at all."
He warned the state could "lose our best talent because of wasted time."
Gov. John Bel Edwards wants a tax package passed in a February special session to replace the expiring revenue, but he's been unable to strike a deal with House Republican leaders so far. Edwards said he won't call the session without an "agreement in principle." The two sides appear far apart.
If lawmakers want to replace the lost revenue with taxes, that requires a special session, either before the regular session starts March 12 or after it ends June 4. Otherwise, they'll have to slash spending.
As required, the Democratic governor will present a proposal Monday for cutting the full $1 billion from next year's budget, and he's warned it will hit public colleges — one of the least protected areas of the budget — hard. Also expected to be on the chopping block is the TOPS free college tuition program that helps 50,000 students cover costs.
House Republicans who have been reluctant to pass taxes haven't offered suggestions for how to cut $1 billion from programs and services. But they say they need to see the actual tax legislation Edwards is proposing, along with financial analyses, to determine what they can support. The Edwards administration and Democrats say the ideas aren't new and have been outlined in previous bills, complete with financial estimates of their impact.
Higher education officials worry the partisan dispute could linger through the regular session and lawmakers will keep the spending plans unfinished, forcing a last-minute special session on the budget and taxes to be called in June. They say campuses must make decisions on faculty hiring, course offerings and student programs — and students will make their choices — before then.
"Debates during the legislative session will assume that all planning is on hold until a budget resolution emerges in June. But that assumption is at odds with the realities of higher education planning, which means that the threats to our institutions will be magnified by this impasse," Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo said in a statement.
Louisiana colleges were hammered by cuts over the last decade. The state spends $700 million less annually on its public colleges than it did in 2008.
Southern University System President Ray Belton sent a letter over the weekend publicly calling on lawmakers to resolve the gap quickly and touting the college system's economic impact on the state. He urged Southern supporters to send letters to their lawmakers.
"Institutions of higher education have all contributed to our great state collectively for more than a century," Belton wrote. "I implore you to ensure that we can continue to be able to do so."