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Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Sen. Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, testified against applying restrictions to environmental cleanup litigation to previously filed legacy lawsuits. His efforts failed.

Despite steep odds, at least three changes are under review by a legislative task force studying the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS.

Expanding the little-used TOPS Tech program, which would carry a pricetag at a time of state budget problems, is one of the ideas being tossed around by the TOPS Task Force.

The state is spending $291 million on TOPS for the 2017-18 academic year.

Converting TOPS to a stipend, and no longer linking it to college tuition, is being touted by state Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennnings, chairman of the 10-member panel. LSU leaders and others would oppose that.

And raising the minimum GPA required for the most common form of TOPS, called TOPS Opportunity, is also in the mix. A bill to do just that won narrow House approval earlier this year before dying in the Senate Education Committee, which Morrish also chairs.

The task force, which has been meeting for months, is set to hold its final fact-gathering session on Nov. 30.

The panel will then start deciding which if any of the three proposals, or others, can win support when recommendations are sent to the full Legislature. The 2018 regular session begins on March 12.

Changing TOPS is always a challenge, and whether any consensus will develop on the task force for major alternations is unclear.

About 52,000 students get TOPS, which pays for most tuition. Nearly half get TOPS Opportunity, according to 2016-17 figures, the latest available.

Most of the rest is divided between TOPS Performance and TOPS Honors, which carry more rigorous academic requirements and also include stipends of up to $800 per year.

But Morrish and some others on the task force say they are concerned about TOPS Tech, which has lower academic requirements and is typically used for two years at a community or technical college.

Only about 2 percent of TOPS recipients — 1,114 at last count — get TOPS Tech.

Unlike TOPS Opportunity, which requires a minimum ACT score of 20, TOPS Tech requires a minimum of just 17 on the test of college readiness. The top score on the ACT is 36.

Morrish said some students view TOPS Tech as second-class.

"I don't feel like we are getting the bang for our bucks for TOPS Tech," he said.

Morrish said the state should consider extending TOPS Tech financing for two more years for students who earn an associate degree in an academic field so they could continue their education at a four-year university.

He said the new rules would improve the use of community colleges as training grounds for high-demand jobs.

"What we know is it will cost us some money," Morrish said. "So we will have to be very frank with people."

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, praised the idea.

Roughly 95 percent of the state's 130,000 community and technical education students remain in Louisiana after they finish school.

"What better student to invest in than students who have performed at the college level?" Sullivan said of the idea of extended payments.

Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, a member of the task force, said he and other panel members like the idea of changing TOPS Tech, especially with the low enrollment now.

"Some students don't really get it until after a year or two," said Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, another member of the task force.

The state faces a roughly $1 billion shortfall for the financial year that begins July 1. That means any push for legislation with a pricetag will face intense scrutiny.

Extending TOPS Tech by two years would also spark criticism that it is unfair to reward students unable to qualify initially for four years of TOPS assistance.

In another area, Morrish said his longtime idea of turning TOPS into a stipend would save money, a key concern of some in any TOPS debate.

He said there is a question of fairness when a student attending McNeese State University gets less TOPS money than one at LSU, where the tuition is considerably higher.

Morrish said the stipend could be set at about $5,200 per year for all students, around $2,000 less than students get for tuition at LSU now.

Jason Droddy, vice president for external affairs at LSU, said doing so would penalize students who meet the state's most rigorous public academic standards.

Trimming the aid for students would also boost chances that they would consider out-of-state colleges, Droddy said.

James Caillier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation, criticized the stipend idea and the other two proposals being discussed by task force members. "I think TOPS is in good shape the way it is," he said.

The foundation is named after TOPS co-founder Patrick Taylor.

Foil and others said changing TOPS Tech could make it easier to raise the minimum GPA required for TOPS Opportunity.

The lawmaker's bill earlier this year would have raised it from 2.50 on the high school core curriculum to 2.75.

Foil's House-passed GPA bill was shelved when Senate leaders said they wanted a task force to do a wide-ranging review TOPS.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.