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Students rally at the Louisiana Capitol, urging state lawmakers to stop college budget cuts

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Angry and worried college students rallied on the Louisiana Capitol steps Wednesday and launched a "No Funds No Future" social media campaign, trying to stop deep budget cuts to their schools.

They also packed a House Appropriations Committee hearing to personally ask lawmakers to keep higher education from facing a reduction of up to $600 million next year that would strip 80 percent of college systems' state financing.

"Higher education has been on the chopping block for eight years," said Jesse Elliott, a student at LSU-Alexandria. "We cannot be whittled away year after year. Our priorities have to change. We demand nothing less."

To close a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, Gov. Bobby Jindal's higher education budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would cut more than $220 million from campuses. It also relies on $372 million from tax break changes that need legislative approval and face resistance from lawmakers.

Any reductions would come on top of $700 million in state financing cuts to campuses since 2008. Nationally, states on average cut their support for higher education by 6 percent during that time, while Louisiana slashed 34 percent, the largest reduction of any state.

David Teagle, University of New Orleans student body president, described this year's threat to college funding as "the breaking point" for many schools. He told lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee that students "currently exist in an environment of fear and anger."

"When we signed up for the institutions, we made a promise ... that we would become great Louisiana citizens. And we feel that the state made a promise to us, that you would educate us and give us the tools to become great Louisiana citizens," Teagle said.

PHOTO: Louisiana public college students rally against budget cuts, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Baton Rouge, La. Higher education is threatened with the loss of as much as 80 percent of its state financing next year, unless lawmakers come up with money to fill the gap. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)
Louisiana public college students rally against budget cuts, Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Baton Rouge, La. Higher education is threatened with the loss of as much as 80 percent of its state financing next year, unless lawmakers come up with money to fill the gap. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

He urged committee members: "We're asking you to show us that our faith is not misplaced in this system."

Student after student, dressed in campus colors and college T-shirts, told similar stories at the rally and committee hearing. They described overburdened faculty leaving for other states, larger class sizes and fewer student services even as tuition and fee costs rise.

Morgan Miller, student government vice president at McNeese State University, worried the worth of her degree from the Lake Charles campus would deteriorate because of repeated cuts.

"We are not receiving the value of an education that we were promised," she said.

College leaders want lawmakers to give them the authority to raise tuition and fees without needing legislative approval and the flexibility to set differing tuition rates by program.

But several students resisted the idea of their costs going up again — and higher education officials have said even with such increases, that won't be enough to offset the gaps.

Lawmakers are considering proposals to scale back tax-break spending and raise other taxes to help drum up new money for next year's budget. Several students pushed similar ideas, saying the state has spent too much on "corporate welfare" through tax breaks for businesses, at the expense of higher education.

But Jindal opposes anything he considers a net tax increase, limiting available options for lawmakers unlikely to override a gubernatorial veto.

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