No Cuts For Colleges When Jindal Announces Friday

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal will shield Louisiana's public colleges from cuts when he reveals his proposal Friday to rebalance this year's budget, which contains a $171 million hole that must be eliminated.

         The Jindal administration said Tuesday that it will present its deficit-closing plan to lawmakers on the joint House and Senate budget committee within three days, rather than take the full month available to devise its strategy.

         Despite the emergence of the budget gap, no grim news is ahead for Louisiana's public colleges, which, after six years of state funding reductions, escaped the chopping block in Jindal's plan.

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         "The administration has indicated its commitment to protecting the state's investment in higher education. As such, we do not anticipate a midyear budget reduction for our nine universities," University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said in a statement.

         Jindal's Division of Administration confirmed the same protection will be given to all four public college systems, which have lost $700 million in state financing since 2008, one of the steepest declines for higher education across the nation.

         The size of the deficit in the $25 billion budget was decided last week by the state's revenue forecasting panel, which lessened income projections for the current budget year that ends June 30. The shortfall stems from two main problems: worse-than-projected revenue tied to falling oil prices and anemic personal income tax growth.

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         Louisiana's constitution requires a balanced budget, and the governor is tasked with rebalancing when a midyear deficit appears. He's limited in how much he can slash across state agencies without getting legislative approval.

         Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, Jindal's chief budget adviser, said the governor's plan will include a mix of cuts, savings from a freeze on nonessential state spending and "revenue opportunities."

         "We are actively working with state agencies to identify opportunities for reducing costs and improving efficiency beyond the current expenditure freeze," Nichols said in a statement. "We expect to have a plan by Friday's (committee) meeting that protects critical services and maintains our investments in higher education."

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         The largest areas of discretionary spending and most vulnerable to cuts are health care services and public colleges, a fact that had worried higher education leaders before they received confirmation they would be spared.

         The Department of Health and Hospitals appeared unlikely to get the same protection, however.

         "While we were not given a specific target to meet, DHH was asked to evaluate its current fiscal year budget for opportunities to improve efficiencies and reduce costs while protecting critical services," said department spokeswoman Olivia Watkins.

         The Jindal administration has had to make midyear cuts six times over the seven years the governor's been in office. After Jindal rebalances this year's budget, additional financial worries loom. Next year's shortfall is estimated at $1.4 billion.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte

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