University leaders call for lawmakers to take action on fiscal cliff

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - With the state facing a $1 billion fiscal cliff next year, state education leaders are calling on lawmakers to take action and soon.

In Governor John Bel Edwards' worst-case budget proposal for next year, TOPS and higher education are once again on the chopping block. The doomsday proposal guts TOPS with an 80 percent cut. State colleges and universities also take a hit. Education leaders worry those cuts, especially the hit to TOPS, will hurt students and their ability to go to school.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, School Superintendent Warren Drake says about 40 to 45 percent of the system's graduates who go to college receive the award. "Certainly if it's cut, it will affect our students' financial bottom line in going to college. We hope it doesn't prevent anyone from making that next step," he said.

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The shortfall for fiscal year 2018-19 is the result of about $1 billion in temporary taxes falling off the books. That includes a penny of the state sales tax, approved by lawmakers two years ago as a band-aid to the budget crisis that year.

Both LSU President F. King Alexander and Southern Chancellor Ray Belton want state legislators to meet in February for a special session to deal with the fiscal cliff, believing it will provide stability for both current college students and high school graduates.

"We want the budget, the fiscal cliff issue solved, solved early, so we don't worry our students and our community as we go forward," Alexander said during an interview Tuesday.

Belton, meanwhile, wrote a statement after the governor unveiled his budget plan, urging lawmakers to act.

"We all have the obligation to ensure that our higher education institutions fulfill their promise of a quality education, lifelong learning, and success in the global workforce," he wrote.

The governor says he does not want to enact the budget as written, and has proposed a series of taxes to fill in at least part of the shortfall. Edwards says he will only call a special session if lawmakers can agree on a plan to address the fiscal cliff.

If that session were to occur, it would likely begin on February 15, according to the governor's office. That means the governor would have to issue a call for the session sometime in the next two weeks.

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