LSUE bracing for budget cuts

By J. Anfenson-Comeau

Higher education’s neck is on the chopping block, and LSU at Eunice is bracing for the ax.

Meeting on Monday, the Revenue Estimating Conference projected a $341 million shortfall for the current state fiscal year, and $2 billion for fiscal year 2009-2010.

It suggested that $109 million dollars would need to be cut from the higher education budget for the current year.

Governor Bobby Jindal is expected to order $50 million in cuts from the LSU system, a reduction of 7.82 percent, according to information from the Louisiana Board of Regents.

For LSUE, that would constitute a budget cut of $648,685 for the current fiscal year, which is already half over and more than half spent.

LSUE Chancellor Bill Nunez described the news as “pretty grim.”

“We knew we were going to get cut for fiscal year 09-10 (which begins next July 1), even though we didn’t know the size, but we didn’t know for sure we were going to get cut this fiscal year as well,” he said.

Nunez said that the school will have hold back on adjunct faculty, leave vacant positions unfilled and teach fewer sections, resulting in larger class sizes, in order to meet the spending numbers.

Nunez said the school would need to evaluate its core curriculum, to focus on what is essential and strategic.

“We’ll have to consider other ways, too, such as less janitorial upkeep, cutting energy costs, supplies, travel and library acquisitions,” Nunez said.

“Are we going to cut positions we desperately need to fill? Yes. Are we going to cut actual people? No. I’m trying to avoid that,” Nunez said.

Nunez expressed frustration that the state has let the current situation get so far out of hand and now turns to higher education to fix the shortfall. “It’s hell being punished for something we didn’t do.”

An unanticipated drop in oil prices is largely to blame for the financial difficulties, in addition to a faltering national economy, and reduced tax revenues due to last year’s revocation of the Stelly Amendment.

During the summer, oil prices briefly soared past $140 a barrel; the state budget estimated an average price of $84 a barrel when calculating state oil tax revenue, conservative at the time.

Oil prices have since dropped well below $50 a barrel and continue to fall.

State officials say every $1 drop in the average annual cost of a barrel of oil costs the state about $13 million in revenue. Conversely, every $1 increase adds about $13 million.

Most aspects of the budget are constitutionally or legislatively protected from cuts to balance the budget; higher education and health care are the two primary areas that are not.

“When you limit it to only a few branches of the state budget,” Nunez said, “those branches get hit pretty hard.”

Rep. Mickey Guillory said that health care faces a $110 million dollar budget cut for the current fiscal year; most of that will be cut from the state Medicaid program, which brings additional losses.

“For every Medicaid dollar cut from the state budget, we lose three dollars from federal matching funds,” quadrupling the effect of any cut, Guillory said.

The state’s budget surplus from previous years can’t be used to fix the budget hole, since it is mandated to be used only for one-time expenses, such as infrastructure repairs.

Guillory said that he hopes he can find some avenue to soften the blow to LSUE when he travels to Baton Rouge today.

“LSUE operates on a shoestring budget already, and manages to accomplish a lot. It’s vital to this area,” Guillory said. “My main interest is to maintain the college, not set it back.”

Nunez noted that LSUE is one of the largest employers in the area, and provides training for health care professionals hired by Acadian Medical Center and other area hospitals. “When you do damage to small colleges, you do economic damage to the entire region.”

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