A task force studying the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students declined to line up behind any sweeping changes because of a glaring lack of agreement on the panel, lawmakers and others said.

"I was disappointed that our committee couldn't come to a consensus on some concrete proposals for the Legislature to consider," said state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, a member of the study group.

"The reality is the committee was split on almost all of the proposals that we submitted for consideration," Foil said.


Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, another panel member, made the same point. "I don't think there was any consensus on any one or two things that would have come out of there," White said.

The committee, which included five House and five Senate members, has met since September.

Lawmakers met 12 times, heard hours of testimony on how TOPS works and lengthy comments from advocates on whether and how it should be changed.


But the TOPS task force mostly finished its work Wednesday without any individual votes on proposals offered by the members.

Instead, the committee voted to send 11 proposals to the Legislature for consideration during the 2018 regular session, which begins March 12.

Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, chairman of the task force, said lawmakers did their work by distilling possible changes from hundreds to five or so that would spark controversy.

Others criticized the lack of any public push to vote on, and get behind, substantive changes.

"It is a political push," said Joshua Stockley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

Stockley said the action amounts to task force members telling the rest of the Legislature, "You guys gave us this responsibility, and we are saying without saying we don't know what to do."

About 52,000 students are TOPS recipients, and the state is spending about $290 million on the program this year.


The assistance has sparked a wide range of arguments in recent months, including how to keep it funded, whether eligibility requirements should be toughened and whether TOPS should be more needs-based rather than merit-oriented.


Morrish  offered the most sweeping proposal.

He wanted to convert the most common form of TOPS — called TOPS Opportunity — to a $4,000 yearly stipend, which would be a drop of up to $3,400 per year for some students, and other changes.

Morrish said it would eventually save about $20 million per year.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, a member of the task force, proposed an equally controversial plan.

Carter wants to ensure full funding for top students and those from the poorest families, with major cuts to others when state aid is reduced.

Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, wants to award TOPS Opportunity for students who failed to qualify as high school students if they earn 60 credit hours in two college academic years and a 3.0 GPA.

Other proposals would revamp TOPS Tech, cut stipends that accompany some TOPS awards and trim qualifying rules on the ACT — which measures college readiness — if GPA requirements for TOPS are raised.

Students now have to earn at least a 2.5 on their core curriculum in high school, and a 20 on the ACT, to receive TOPS Opportunity.

Carter said action by the task force was preferable to party-line votes on individual bills.

"It was a great, bipartisan conversation," he said. "I think the fact we agreed that anything we do must be on a bipartisan basis is great."

The task force consisted of six Republicans and four Democrats.

White said the panel was always sharply divided on how to revamp TOPS.

Bishop, Carter and Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, stressed the need to widen the reach for the program.

White and Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, pushed for allowing TOPS Tech recipients to eventually qualify for TOPS Opportunity if they showed academic promise after two years.

Foil said one concern was whether it made sense to advance proposals on a 6-4 vote, or whether a super majority should be required. He said the task force was split into two camps over TOPS.

"Some people believe it should be needs based and some people think it should be merit based," Foil said.

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said lawmakers are skittish since cutting the program in 2016 sparked criticism of the Legislature.


"I think a lot of legislators are just very wary of messing with TOPS," Erwin said.

At least two bills are likely to emerge from the study for the 2018 regular legislative session, which begins March 12.

Carter plans to re-introduce his measure to ensure funding for the best TOPS recipients and those most in need of financial help.

Foil said he will again push a plan to fund tops in part with riverboat gambling revenue.

Both died in the Legislature last year.

Stockley said changing TOPS is a multilayered challenge that sparks differences along budget, party and racial lines.

"That makes it difficult to come to any unanimous agreement as to how to move forward," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.