As Louisiana struggles with TOPS funding, bills to reform program pass first hurdle in Senate committee

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Incoming freshman and transfer students head to their next STRIPES activity Tuesday, August 11, 2015 on Louisiana State University’s campus.

A number of bills that would change TOPS scholarships successfully made it through their first hurdle in the Louisiana Senate Education Committee on Thursday — including one that would break the link that automatically increases TOPS awards to match tuition hikes and one that would address the way the awards are divvied out when the state is unable to fully fund the program.

Meanwhile, Gov. John Bel Edwards acknowledged that taxes raised in the special session earlier this year were not enough to fully fund the popular TOPS awards in the upcoming school year. Edwards is expected on Tuesday to release a revised plan for the state budget year beginning July 1 that reflects the new tax dollars raised.

“You’re not going to see a proposal from us next Tuesday to fully fund TOPS,” Edwards told reporters in a news conference Thursday. “If we raise more revenue in a second special session, I would love to fully fund TOPS.”

While more than a dozen bills to change TOPS or contain its costs have been filed, it’s Mandeville Sen. Jack Donahue’s Senate Bill 174 that legislators believe has the greatest chance of passing.

The measure, which Edwards supports, would lock in the value of individual TOPS awards at current tuition rates. TOPS covers the full tuition of public universities and colleges for in-state students who meet midlevel academic benchmarks.

If the bill passes and is signed into law, TOPS awards would stay where they are now, and TOPS recipients might be responsible for covering part of their tuition if schools raise rates.

Donahue, a Republican, called it a “mild” change and stressed that it’s not a cap on TOPS in the traditional sense because the program can still grow as more students become eligible.

SB174 is nearly identical to a bill the Legislature passed last year that was vetoed by Edwards’ predecessor.

The bill is endorsed by the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, where TOPS was born. The foundation has been resistant to proposed changes in the past but supported the similar bill last year.

James Caillier, executive director of the foundation, recently lamented former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s veto. Caillier said the foundation is sensitive to the growing cost of TOPS and sees the bill as necessary to sustain the program’s longevity.

“I’ve watched (TOPS) grow over my nine years here,” Donahue said. “When programs are really successful like this one is, they can’t continue to grow forever.”

For years, the Legislature has tried to rein in the ballooning cost of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which is estimated to cost more than $300 million next year.

The urgency is sharper now, because the state budget faces a $750 million shortfall and the governor said there’s not enough money to fully fund TOPS. That means without legislative action to cut the budget elsewhere or raise taxes in a special session later this year, many students who are TOPS eligible under the current guidelines might not receive the award.

Under current law, if the state can’t fund TOPS fully, then awards are prioritized to students with the highest ACT scores. In February, state officials said there was only enough money to give TOPS awards to students next year with a 28 or higher on the ACT, despite the qualifying score being a 20. However, that level of funding is expected to change on Tuesday when the new tax revenue is included in the revised budget.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, sponsored a bill that would recalculate the way TOPS awards are distributed when the Legislature doesn’t fully fund the program. Instead of cutting the lower-achieving students out of the awards, the measure would give all TOPS-eligible students an equal slice of whatever funds are available for the program.

In that scenario, students would get partial TOPS awards but would be responsible for an undetermined portion of their tuition. The committee recommended the legislation favorably to the full Senate, which could vote on it and the other advanced bills as early as next week.

“Hopefully, we won’t have to go down this path,” said Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe.

Two other TOPS-related bills also successfully advanced out of the Senate Education Committee — one that would relinquish the tuition authority from the Legislature to the governing higher education boards.

The other would increase the standards for the upper tiers of the TOPS awards, which offer stipends on top of full tuition. Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Dan Claitor’s Senate Bill 329 would increase the GPAs students would have to get to receive the $400 and $800 a year stipends.

Morrish voluntarily pulled another measure that would have prevented private schools from receiving TOPS funding. He said he’d changed his mind about it after speaking with private university and college officials.

“TOPS awards are awarded to students, not institutions,” the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University New Orleans, told the committee. “It allows students choice in where they attend college.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.