A look at the next steps after bill reining in TOPS cost clears Louisiana House _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MARK BALLARD -- Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, center, explained changes on Tuesday to legislation that would revamp the popular TOPS scholarship program for qualified students.

Despite vocal opposition from Gov. Bobby Jindal, the state Legislature is advancing a proposal that seeks to rein in the cost of Louisiana’s TOPS college scholarship program.

The House approved Senate Bill 48 on Tuesday, which means it’s now one step away from hitting Jindal’s desk.

The legislation would end automatic increases in the amount college students receive through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students when tuition goes up. Instead, awards will remain at the 2016-17 level, unless the Legislature authorizes future increases.

Jindal and his staff, along with some legislators, have argued that it’s an effective cap on the program — seen as one of the most generous of its kind in the country. Supporters of the proposal say it’s about ensuring the program’s longevity and preventing larger cutbacks in the future. The proposal is being backed by higher education leaders and some of the program’s most ardent supporters.

“We’re going to protect the TOPS program and make it sustainable for the future,” state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, said before the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Jindal plans to veto the measure. His staff did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on his intentions Tuesday after the bill’s passage.

Because TOPS awards generally cover tuition costs, repeated tuition hikes in recent years have led to ballooning costs for the program and spurred some to look into ways that it could be scaled back. Tuition has gone up 10 percent on most campuses for the past six years, while the Legislature slashed general funding for higher education.

The program is intended to keep Louisiana high schoolers who meet certain benchmarks in state when they go to college. That means taking an outlined high school curriculum and earning at least a 2.5 grade point average, as well as scoring at least a 20 on the standardized ACT test. The scholarship generally covers tuition but doesn’t include fees and other costs of going to college. Originally named the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, it was renamed in 2008 for the late Patrick F. Taylor, an early advocate of the program. Taylor’s widow, Phyllis, supports this year’s TOPS bill, but she has opposed other proposals in the past. Taylor is a key political ally of Jindal.

More than 212,000 students have been awarded TOPS grants since 1999. TOPS currently costs the state about $250 million a year.

The House passage came after just a brief discussion of the measure, which comes as lawmakers continue to struggle with how to address a $1.6 billion budget shortfall in the coming year that could mean potentially devastating cuts to colleges and universities.

SB48, sponsored by Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue of Mandeville, has been linked to another proposal that would give tuition- and fee-setting authority to the college system boards. Currently, tuition prices are set by the state Legislature. Senate Bill 155 is scheduled for debate on the House floor today.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .