TOPS changes approved by Senate would take bite out of all students’ scholarships _lowres

The Advocate file photo

Louisiana senators overwhelmingly approved legislation Tuesday that would spread evenly whatever money is available for TOPS to the more than 50,000 students who qualify.

Law requires that when the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is not fully funded, a procedure kicks in that pays full tuition only to students with the highest ACT scores, though some money is set aside for students based on financial need.

About 17,000 students would receive the money if the current budget proposal becomes law.

Senate Education Chairman Dan “Blade” Morrish called his Senate Bill 470 a safeguard.

The measure would replace the current process and would recalculate the way TOPS awards are distributed. Instead of cutting the lower-achieving students out of the awards, the measure would give all TOPS-eligible students an equal slice of whatever funds are available for the program.

“Everyone will get something,” Morrish said. If the funding for TOPS is ultimately at 50 percent, then everyone would receive 50 percent of their scholarship.

Additionally, the legislation would allow TOPS-qualified students who could not pay their portion of the tuition — and therefore could not attend college next year — to keep the merit-based scholarship until a time the program is fully funded. Current law drops TOPS eligibility for students who don’t stay in school.

TOPS is a merit-based scholarship that covers in-state tuition for students who meet academic benchmarks.

Morrish said under the law, money is only available to students who make a 26 or higher on the ACT.

The average ACT score for recipients of the TOPS Opportunity award is a 22. A perfect ACT score is 36.

The TOPS Opportunity Award, which is the standard package, requires a minimum ACT score of 20 for eligibility.

“Based on what I’ve seen in the current funding, a lot of people will be zeroed out,” Morrish

The Legislature, during a special session earlier this year, agreed to several tax hikes, including raising the state’s sales tax and cuts in services across state government. The effort reduced the shortfall from more than $2 billion to its current $750 million estimate.

Legislators are legally forbidden from raising taxes during regular sessions that take place in even-numbered years. Only spending cuts are available to balance the budget by July 1.

Last week, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the state could only afford to give TOPS about $110 million in the coming year — about a third of the $300 million projected to fully fund the program. Most of that money would come through tobacco settlement dollars, which is dedicated by law to contribute to TOPS. The state’s general fund would pay $50 million toward the program’s costs.

Edwards said he wants to hold another special session, which could consider taxes, after the regular session adjourns on June 6 and hopefully come up with the money.

“The next part is finding the money,” said Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.

Much of the Senate debate was aimed at explaining why passing the legislation was important, given the fiscal situation and the existing protocol for when TOPS is not fully funded.

Republican Sen. Dan Claitor, whose Baton Rouge district includes many of the neighborhoods where LSU students and faculty live, said he received 36 calls asking him to vote against the legislation.

“I think it’s because they don’t understand,” Claitor said, adding that under the circumstances, getting some of the scholarship is better than getting none, which is what the result would be for most students.

The Senate voted 35-0 to change the rules and spread TOPS evenly among the eligible students.

The legislation now moves on to the House.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.