Edwards wants higher education stability, but more cuts loom

(Photo: LEE CELANO/THE ADVERTISER)
(Photo: LEE CELANO/THE ADVERTISER)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards vowed Wednesday that he won’t allow the budget “to be balanced on the backs of our students,” while later acknowledging that’s more of a long-term aspiration than a pledge he can immediately fulfill.

As he marked the one-year anniversary of his tenure in office, the Democratic governor talked of his administration’s ongoing work to stabilize the state budget after he inherited the worst financial problems Louisiana’s seen in nearly 30 years.

“We are going to fully right the ship,” he said, while stressing that higher education shouldn’t be the budget-balancing sacrifice.

College campuses, however, are unlikely to escape a second round of cuts before Louisiana’s financial year closes, as the state grapples with a looming deficit expected to reach $300 million or more.

“If the deficit comes in as large as we think it might, I don’t know how any area of the budget escapes without further reductions,” Edwards said.

Edwards’ comments came at the Governor’s Mansion, during and after a wide-ranging speech recounting achievements and challenges during his first year in office.

Among the many problems, Edwards continues to struggle with repeated financial gaps, in a state mired in a recession and digging out of years of patchwork budgeting that papered over shortfalls rather than solving them. A forecasting panel Friday is expected to downgrade Louisiana’s income projections, creating a new midyear budget deficit in the fiscal year that began July 1.

Colleges, which took a $12 million cut earlier this budget year in a prior round of cuts, appear poised for another hit to help close that next deficit.

But Edwards said he will propose that Louisiana raise taxes in the upcoming regular legislative session to avoid reductions to campuses in future budget years — and to fully fund the TOPS college tuition program.

TOPS awards are only covering 42 percent of tuition this semester, because the program is $90 million short of what was needed to pay full tuition for all eligible students.

“We have to raise additional revenue,” the governor said.

The statement is sure to put him at odds with House Republican leaders, who have said government needs to be restructured and trimmed further before lawmakers should consider tax increases in the spring session.

“There’s still some reform that has to be done,” House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said recently.

Edwards pushed back on GOP suggestions that he repeatedly turns to taxpayers to fill gaps.

“Naysayers will tell you that I have only proposed raising taxes, but that would be wrong. In my first year alone, my administration made more than $850 million in painful government spending cuts,” he said.

The budget woes were among several crises Edwards faced in his first year.

Two floods hit the state in March and August, causing billions of dollars in damage in 56 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. The shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man, by white police officers in Baton Rouge triggered protests and unease in July, followed fewer than two weeks later by the ambush-style killings of three law enforcement officers in the city.

As he looked back on the rough year, Edwards said: “I’m even more optimistic about our future because I’ve seen what all we can accomplish in one year in spite of the significant obstacles we’ve faced.”

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