Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, and Phyllis Taylor, chairman and president of the New Orleans-based Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, testified Wednesday for legislation that would rein in the cost of the popular TOPs award, which pays college and university tuition for qualified students. Though Taylor, whose late husband founded the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, supports the changes, Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes the bill.

A key House panel has advanced legislation that seeks to rein in the cost of Louisiana’s TOPS scholarship program and give colleges more authority over the tuition they charge.

The House Education Committee approved Sen. Jack Donahue’s Senate Bills 48 and 155 following brief discussions on each Wednesday morning. No members objected to sending the bills to the full House for consideration. The Senate has already agreed to them. Both would ultimately require approval from Louisiana voters.

SB48 seeks to eliminate the automatic increases in scholarship awards students receive through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students when tuition goes up. Donahue, R-Mandeville, has said the proposal will help ensure the program’s future.

“TOPS is going to continue to grow,” he said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes the TOPS change, and his office maintains that it could have the effect of serving as a “cap” on the program — a term Donahue steadfastly opposes.

“TOPS is a promise we made to students of Louisiana — that if they did well in college, we would reward them,” Jindal’s Deputy Chief of Staff Stafford Palmieri told the committee Wednesday.

The program covers tuition costs of students who meet certain academic benchmarks in high school and decide to stay in Louisiana for college.

In 2001, TOPS cost the state about $104 million. This year, it will cost about $250 million, and it’s expected to swell to nearly $300 million by 2020.

While TOPS spending has ballooned, state funding for higher education has taken a drastic dive. Tuition prices have been raised to try to offset some of the cuts, but that has further driven TOPS costs higher because of the direct link between the two. Donahue’s tuition-setting authority proposal, SB155, is linked to approval of the TOPS change because of that relationship.

Donahue said his TOPS plan — which would require legislative approval to increase individual award amounts — would be better for the state than capping the total cost of the program.

The legislation has the backing of one of the programs most ardent supporters, Phyllis Taylor, the widow of TOPS founder Patrick Taylor. Until this plan, she has long opposed changes to TOPS that could affect students.

She told the committee Wednesday that she sees SB48 as an opportunity “to preserve the TOPS program but give some certainty to the Legislature and the governor.”

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