By Kaylee Poche and Devon Sanders, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Louisiana State University leaders picked a good moment to celebrate their annual “LSU Day at the Capitol,” coming right after both Gov. John Bel Edwards and House Republicans proposed adding more money for TOPS scholarships back into next year’s budget.
But after a painful decade of dealing with cuts in overall spending on higher education, officials from LSU’s campuses and medical schools in Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Eunice, Shreveport and New Orleans descended on the Capitol Tuesday to lobby for more stability.
The event–complete with LSU’s band and cheerleaders, an assortment of ice cream from its Dairy Store and a large inflatable colon courtesy of researchers at its medical schools–aimed to showcase the system’s contributions and fend off other cuts.
The event highlighted key programs, including research on colon cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and an estimated $5 billion economic impact that the system has on the state.
LSU President F. King Alexander, the chancellors of the other universities in the system and the deans of some of the colleges met with Gov. John Bel Edwards as well as legislators.
In January, Edwards proposed slashing TOPS funding by $233 million and cutting direct state support to universities by $25 million as part of a “doomsday” scenario that he said could happen if the Legislature did not raise new revenue to fill a projected budget gap.
State officials announced last week that Louisiana will receive a $346 million windfall as a result of federal tax changes, and that prompted Edwards to say he would restore one-fifth of the proposed cut in TOPS and rescind his plan to cut higher education by $25 million.
The House Appropriations Committee then went further on Monday, passing its version of the budget that would use $233 million of the windfall to fully fund the TOPS.
But the committee was able to do that by forcing $600 million in cuts on the state’s health care system, an approach that could run into trouble on the House floor as early as Thursday.
Alexander said the committee did something similar last year, and other legislators objected to focusing the cuts on programs that would hit the poor and the disabled, safety-net hospitals and the state’s medical schools.
As a result, Alexander’s chief of staff, Jason Droddy, said, “The budget bill appears to be in jeopardy.”
“We have been told that there are too many important services, especially health care and higher education, left unfunded for it to be considered viable,” he added. “Many legislators think it will be rejected on the House floor next Thursday.”
The choice to fully fund TOPS could also leave some of LSU’s critical programs, like its medical schools in New Orleans and Shreveport, underfunded. Leaders of medical schools across the state told the House Finance Committee Tuesday that the proposed cuts would devastate both schools.
While there could be opportunities to create additional funding for the health science centers by raising taxes, Larry Hollier, leader of LSU Health New Orleans, said he was concerned with the message that the Legislature is sending to the students and faculties of the facilities.
High school students from LSU Eunice also were at the Capitol Tuesday, representing a program that allows them to graduate from high school with associate degrees in their chosen fields. These students receive half off of the tuition for the college classes they take during high school.
“This gives everyone the chance to see all the programs we’re offering, including our new LSU Eunice Academy for our high school students,” Trinity Myers, a LSU Eunice student, said. “Our legislators can see all the work we’re doing in our schools.”
LSU Alexandria admissions counselor Travis Edwards said he thought it was important for all LSU campuses to be represented at the Capitol.
“As the name implies, Louisiana State University is all of the state, so having all these different colleges here, like LSU Eunice, Shreveport, Alexandria and Baton Rouge, is important,” Edwards said.
Naturally, no LSU event would be complete without sports. Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, tweeted a photo with LSU basketball coach, Will Wade, outside the Capitol. Football coach Ed Orgeron also was there.
According to Zac Lemoine, who coordinated the event, Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, may meet with Dr. Cynthia Peterson, the dean of the College of Science, soon to discuss women in science, technology, engineering and math.
“It’s our opportunity to put our best foot forward with the members and show them that we don’t always come just to ask for money,” Lemoine said. “Sometimes we just come to showcase the stuff we do, which is research, outreach and education.”