The House’s top money committee easily approved legislation Monday that would constitutionally dedicate more money to merit-based TOPS scholarships.

The House Appropriations committee, without objection, passed Senate bills 52 and 53 by state Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, to set aside more tobacco settlement dollars to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

Proponents say the Gov. Bobby Jindal-proposed legislation would better protect TOPS annually and free up the state general fund that pays for the vast majority of TOPS.

Critics point to further dedicating state dollars and redirecting interest payments from health care and education to TOPS.

“It’s designed to provide some stable funding for the TOPS program,” Alario said, while noting the amendment will not fully fund TOPS.

The legislation next goes to the House floor, where two-thirds support is needed for approval. Senate concurrence also would be required because of technical amendments.

Although the House backed the contingent dollars out of the state budget, the legislation has continued to progress without much opposition. Voters would have to approve the constitutional amendment this fall.

TOPS costs $134 million annually. At the state’s public universities, TOPS pays tuition and some fees.

Many of these institutions have pending tuition increases, which would swell the amount of money the state government would have to pay to as much as $170 million next year.

State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, expressed concern that TOPS scholarships should be “capped” as the state’s costs continue to escalate. State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, complained that TOPS keeps students in Louisiana colleges, only to see them leave the state after they graduate.

James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, said TOPS still keeps a lot more graduates in Louisiana. He called TOPS one of the greatest programs ever created in the state. “This will allow the kids in high school to feel a little more comfortable — that are working hard — that the funds will be available when they graduate,” Caillier said.

Jindal’s plan would protect for TOPS $43 million in additional funding — making a total of $58 million available that could not be spent elsewhere.