Legislation that adds the 4-cent cigarette tax renewal onto a constitutional amendment to dedicate more tobacco settlement dollars to merit-based TOPS scholarships is expected to remain intact after going through a legislative conference committee, lawmakers said Wednesday.
Bill sponsor and state Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, had the Senate reject the cigarette tax amendment Wednesday afternoon, but only so it can be better worded by a six-person conference committee, he said.
“The whole concept is the same,” Alario said. “I will vote for it.”
The House and Senate must still accept the conference committee report on Thursday, which is the final day of the legislative session.
The constitutional amendment is a Gov. Bobby Jindal-backed plan to permanently set aside more dollars each year for the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, called TOPS, which pays college tuition for qualified students.
By using the Jindal-backed Senate Bills 52 and 53 as the vehicles, state Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, revived his cigarette tax renewal that had previously been vetoed by Jindal. The governor has argued that a tax renewal is the same as a tax increase.
Although just a renewal of 4 cents, which collects $12 million annually, the proposal has been one of the session’s most debated and controversial.
Ritchie’s amendment was approved Monday on a 59-40 vote. Last week, 58 House members voted in favor of overriding Jindal’s veto of Ritchie’s renewal bill, but 70 votes, or two-thirds support, are needed. Ritchie’s amendment only required majority support, or 53 “yes” votes.
Jindal said Tuesday he is “disappointed” the cigarette tax was amended onto the bill, but that the TOPS plan is too important to sacrifice.
Alario said there are some “technical things” that need to be fixed with Ritchie’s amendment. For instance, it could be argued that Ritchie added a statute into a constitutional amendment, Alario said, which he said could be legally argued that Jindal Would maintain veto authority over it. Instead, the conference committee can fix it so the cigarette tax is written into the heart of the constitutional amendment, Alario said.
A constitutional amendment cannot be vetoed. It would go to the public for a vote Oct. 22.
Unlike Ritchie’s original bill, which sent the revenues from the 4-cent renewal to the state general fund, the amendment places the dollars in the state’s Health Excellence Fund, which is filled with interest from tobacco settlement dollars.
Alario said the committee also must clean up the language with regard to the Health Excellence Fund collecting the funds.
TOPS currently costs the state $134 million annually. At the state’s public universities, TOPS pays tuition and some fees. Because of anticipated tuition increases this fall, state government would have to pay as much as $150 million or so for TOPS next year.
Jindal’s plan would protect for TOPS $43 million additional dollars — making a total of $58 million available that could not be spent elsewhere. Currently, only $15 million is dedicated to TOPS. The rest of the costs for TOPS come from state general fund dollars.
The state receives about $58 million each year from the Tobacco Settlement — 25 percent goes to the Louisiana Fund for health-care expenses and 75 percent goes to the Millennium Trust Fund, which totals $1.38 billion.
The constitutional amendment would cap the Millennium Trust Fund at $1.38 billion and any funds in excess of that amount will be dedicated toward the TOPS.
After the initial $43 million, the plan will increase the dollars by an additional $70 million once the bonds are paid off from 2018 to 2030.
The Millennium Trust Fund currently allocates money to TOPS, the Education Excellence Fund and the Health Excellence Fund, which would further benefit from Ritchie’s amendment.