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Senator Dan "Blade" Morrish

Shoring up the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students financially has wide support on a legislative task force but how to do so remains elusive, the chairman of the panel said Thursday.

"Everyone agrees that we need a sustainable funding source for TOPS," said Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings.

"No matter what  you do with TOPS, if you are going to have a TOPS program, no matter what the program looks like, you need a sustainable funding source that does not depend on the appropriations process," Morrish said.

But Morrish conceded that, after four months of study, finding ways to end the year-to-year worries on financing the college aid program has eluded the 10-member panel.

"It seems like TOPS is this simple little program," Morrish added. "It is not. It is a very complicated, numbers driven issue."

The task force is set to meet on Jan. 11 to see what if any consensus can be mustered on suggested changes that will go to the Legislature.

The final meetings are set for Jan. 25 and Feb. 7.

About 52,000 students receive TOPS, which pays for most tuition costs.

The state is spending about $292 million for TOPS in the current financial year, and most of that comes from Louisiana's stressed general revenue fund. State government faces a $1 billion plus shortfall starting July 1 to fund services at current levels.

A special session is likely in February to tackle state financial problems ahead of the regular session, which begins March 12.

Morrish noted that the program, which began in 1998, went along well before the state started experiencing serious budget troubles.

For the first time, students did not get their customary TOPS amounts for the 2016-17 school year because of budget woes.

In addition, tuition payments are frozen at 2016-17 levels, and tuition hikes will only be added to TOPS awards if the Legislature says so.

While a wide range of changes are under review, task force members have said since August that stabilizing TOPS funding is a key priority.

Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, a member of the panel, said it has to be done piecemeal.

"After sitting through all those committee meetings, I am convinced that the only way we are going to make it more stable is to do it in little bites," Foil said.

One way to do so, he said, would be to revamp how much TOPS aid qualifiers get.

The most common form of TOPS is called TOPS Opportunity. Students have to earn at least  a 2.50 GPA on their high school core curriculum, and at least  a 20 on the ACT, to qualify.

The ACT measures college readiness. The top score is 36.

Foil said he and others on the task force are considering a plan under which the students with the top grades would get the most TOPS aid.

Others would get less on a scaled system.

He said that would ensure that the state's top students receive the money.

"Number 2, it may encourage kids that don't have the strongest grades to look at less expensive options, like a community college to start off," he said.

The proposal is a variation of legislation that Foil sponsored earlier this year, which would have increased the GPA requirement to 2.75 from 2.50.

Others contend that TOPS should be left alone.

James Caillier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation, said capping tuition levels covered by TOPS "took away any arguments that TOPS is a runaway program."

Caillier said that, when public and private students are tabulated, the graduation rate for TOPS recipients exceeds 70 percent compared to 17 percent for students who do not get the aid.

"I think it needs to stay the way it is," he said. "The students are graduating."

Other changes floated earlier remain under consideration by the task force.

Those include expanding TOPS Tech beyond two years of aid and making TOPS a stipend.

Morrish said the yearly uncertainity of funding for TOPS allows out-of-state schools to enroll some of Louisiana's top students.

"You don't know if TOPS is going to be there for you or not," he said.

Morrish also said trying to find a dedicated funding source for the program makes little sense at a time when the Legislature is under pressure to curb the practice of setting aside dollars that can't be spent on anything else.

Foil agreed.

"To try to get dedicated money is next to impossible," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.