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SUS president, others seek public’s help to avoid higher education cuts

22nd January 2018   ·   0 Comments

The president of the Southern University System has written an open letter with reaction to Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed potential $1 billion cut to Louisiana’s higher education budget and is encouraging supporters to write Louisiana legislators.

President-Chancellor Dr. Ray Belton wrote an open letter to supporters of Southern University in anticipation of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed cuts to the state budget to avoid a $1 billion fiscal cliff. Edwards has said cuts to higher education, including TOPS, and health care would be the first on the chopping block.

A cut to higher education will likely lead to cuts in funding in all public colleges and universities in Louisiana.

Belton says although these institutions, including the five in the Southern University System, have survived more than $800 million in cuts over the past decade, budget cuts at this time could “erode” much of the recent progress they have made in academics and contributions to the state.

In the letter, Belton urges the state Legislature to consider the university’s students, communities and the overall picture of what higher education and Southern University, in particular, bring to the state. He highlighted the economic impact of the university’s faculty and staff, students and alumni.

“Summarily, if Southern loses, our state loses,” Belton wrote.

Belton said it is critical that decisions being weighed on the upcoming fiscal year be made as soon as possible so that families and administrators can make appropriate plans. “This not only includes academic plans, and livelihoods but also efficient and effective operations,” Belton wrote.

In a separate email, the university highlighted areas that may be directly affected deeply by budget cuts including enrollment, job readiness, academic offerings and athletics.

Belton encouraged supporters of the university to write to their local legislative representatives and voice their support for Southern University.

Gov. Edwards made his opening offer to state lawmakers last month, outlining his tax plan to fill in the state’s projected $1 billion fiscal cliff.

The ideas Edwards offered are largely familiar, FOX 8 News reported. Many have been debated before at the state capitol, before being voted down or dying in committee. “It’s time we stop looking at the options. We know what the options are. We have to move forward,” Edwards told FOX 8 News.

Starting in fiscal year 2018 – 2019, roughly $1 billion in temporary taxes will fall off the books. Most of that revenue comes from a temporary 1 cent boost to the state sales tax. Without that revenue, the governor says higher education and health care would be on the chopping block. “If we don’t fix the cliff, no one is going to want to put their name on the cuts that are necessary,” Edwards said.

Some of the proposed changes impact business. For example, the plan calls for taxing utilities while at the same time maintaining certain reductions to tax exemptions and deductions. Other ideas impact families directly, such as applying the sales tax to certain services like cable TV. The plan also calls for removing a long list of exemptions to the state’s sales tax.

“I’m going to be flexible. I look forward to compromising with the legislature,” Edwards said.

One idea is already facing pushback: The governor’s plan for compressing individual income tax brackets. Details of the plan are limited. The governor’s office says they will not announce specific tax brackets until they see what Congress does with the federal tax bill.

Small business owners worry any changes to tax brackets could cause them to take a hit. “Somebody’s going to be paying more in his version of this and that we know will fall on the backs of small business owners,” Dawn Starns, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, told FOX 8 News.

Changing brackets could also boost taxes on some middle- and upper-class families. Even so, Jan Moller with the Louisiana Budget Project says that increase could be balanced by reducing the state sales tax. A temporary 1 cent boost to the state’s sales tax is already scheduled to go away next fiscal year. “I think we need to look at this in total and I also think we need to look at what would be lost if we have to cut a billion out of this budget, because that’s going to impact everybody,” Moller told FOX 8 News.

Starns said that the business owners she represents support extending the 1 cent boost to the state sales tax. However, the governor says he opposes such a move.

Edwards has asked for feedback from lawmakers on his plan and hopes to call a special session in February to deal with the fiscal cliff. However, he says he will not do so unless lawmakers agree to a plan.

As required, Gov. Edwards will present a proposal Jan. 22 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.

The Associated Press reported that 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.

“Institutions of higher education have all contributed to our great state collectively for more than a century,” Belton wrote in his open letter to Southern University supporters. “I implore you to ensure that we can continue to be able to do so.”

This article originally published in the January 22, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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