Louisiana lawmakers signed off on a variety of changes to the popular TOPS scholarships and other bills giving colleges and universities more authority to increase their tuition, moving the legislation ever closer to becoming law.

The Louisiana Senate OK’d a bill that could strip the Legislature of its hold over tuition rates, giving the authority to the post-secondary institutions and the governing boards, which include the LSU Board of Supervisors and the Southern University Board of Supervisors. That bill heads to the House for consideration. If passed, it would first go to the voters Nov. 8.

Currently, tuition increases for colleges and universities requires a two-thirds approval from both chambers of the Legislature, which has historically kept tuition in Louisiana low. The exception is the Louisiana GRAD Act, a six-year agreement signed in 2010 that allows the schools to raise their tuition annually in exchange for meeting performance benchmarks, including graduation rates.

Under this arrangement, colleges and universities, in some cases, have been able to double their tuition over the past few years, which has come as the state has withdrawn more than 50 percent of the funding it provided eight years ago.

Senate Bill 80, by state Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, is contingent on another bill that would sever tuition increases from the TOPS scholarships.

Both Morrish and Mandeville Sen. Jack Donahue, a Republican, have sponsored similar bills that lock in the current TOPS awards as a means to contain the growing cost of the program. TOPS is expected to cost about $300 million this year.

Both of the bills advanced on Wednesday, but Donahue’s Senate Bill 174 is the furthest along in the legislative process.

Currently, Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships increase along with tuition to ensure students who are eligible get full tuition coverage. The awards are given to in-state students who make at least a 20 on the ACT and a 2.5 core GPA in high school.

If universities and colleges increase their tuition in future years, students who receive TOPS would be required to pay for a slice of their own tuition for the first time in the program’s existence if SB174 successfully passes.

Future increases in awards would require a vote of the Legislature.

Donahue’s bill already has won approval in the Senate, and on Wednesday, it easily passed out of a House committee. It now goes to the full House for approval.

Last year, Donahue’s bill passed the full Legislature, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he will sign the bill into law.

State Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, also pitched a bill that would address both tuition autonomy and capping TOPS.

His bill would allow the higher education governing boards to increase tuition for schools by limited amounts — not more than 10 percent in one year or 20 percent over four years.

Similar to other bills moving in the Legislature, Ivey also proposes isolating TOPS awards so they’re no longer affected by tuition increases. But under his bill, if tuition goes up, students who have TOPS wouldn’t be asked to pay the difference between their TOPS award and the higher tuition. Instead they’d be exempted, and only students who don’t have TOPS would have to pay the increases in tuition.

“There’s other legislation that allows for the decoupling of TOPS from tuition, but it creates a disparity that falls to students or parents,” he said. “The goal of this is to maintain the integrity of the award.”

The bill was approved by the House Education Committee and moves to the House floor for further consideration.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.

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