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House speaker balks at Jindal's proposal to cut hundreds of millions from colleges next year

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — House Speaker Chuck Kleckley vowed Friday to fight a proposal floated by Gov. Bobby Jindal to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from Louisiana colleges next year, setting the stage for a possible financial clash between the lame-duck governor and lawmakers.

Kleckley, a Republican typically allied with the governor, said he's heard talk of higher education cuts that could reach up to $370 million in the budget year that begins July 1. He said such a reduction would devastate campuses and state workforce development efforts.

"It doesn't make any sense. Cutting higher education to that magnitude would not set us back years — it would set us back generations. It would go against everything we've done in economic development," Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said in an interview.

"I will not support a budget, I will not vote for a budget that has this kind of cut for higher education."

As the governor reaches his last year in office, the Jindal administration is crafting its final executive budget proposal, which is due to lawmakers by the end of February, while facing a shortfall pegged at $1.4 billion. The financial gap may grow larger to account for the steep drop in oil prices.

Target figures of possible cuts for the 2015-16 fiscal year are going out to departments as the Jindal administration looks for ways to slice spending, with a goal of shrinking state financing for each agency by 15 percent.

The state health department has been told to prepare for losing as much as $250 million in state money, a reduction that could grow hundreds of millions of dollars larger when federal matching dollars used for health care services are included.

"Oil prices are declining and while that is good for consumers, it means state government has less money," Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said in a statement.

Oil prices aren't the sole problem, however. Jindal has repeatedly balanced the budget with dollars from property sales, legal settlements and other sources that don't reappear each year, and lawmakers have approved the patchwork financing. This year's budget contains $1 billion that won't be available to spend next year, creating the largest part of the budget gap.

"The bottom line is that we will have a balanced budget without tax increases," Nichols said.

Meghan Parrish, a spokeswoman for Jindal's Division of Administration, said the possible higher education cut being considered for next year ranges from $200 million to $300 million, but she said the administration is open to ideas for how to shrink that cut.

Any slashing would fall on top of $700 million in state financing reductions that college campuses and higher education offices have taken since 2008.

Kleckley said he's weighing options to keep colleges from taking further hits, but he wouldn't elaborate on the ideas. Lawmakers will devise a final version of next year's spending plans in the two-month legislative session that begins April 13.

Lawmakers have talked repeatedly about trying to scale back the state's generous tax break programs, which siphon billions of dollars from the state treasury each year. But Jindal has said he would oppose any removal of a tax break without an offset to tax payments elsewhere. Anything else, the Republican governor has described as a tax hike.

Asked if he would consider looking at shrinking tax breaks, Kleckley replied: "I think everything's on the table."

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