Imagine that. Cut the budget for government entitlement programs, and state agencies find ways to meet priorities without taking more from taxpayers. That’s the lesson delivered by some Louisiana universities reacting to decreased Taylor Opportunity Program for Students dollars.
Facing budgetary pressures, the Legislature for the first time ever this fiscal year did not fund TOPS fully, but at around 70 percent. In isolation, this meant that qualifying students would pay the difference. Given its low academic requirements, TOPS serves as little more than an entitlement for students scoring below the national average on the American College Test. These low standards cause TOPS to suffer a disqualification rate of more than 40 percent, which wastes a significant portion of its appropriation.
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The Legislature arranged to backload the impact so that the biggest hit would come for spring terms. That day of reckoning draws nigh, but some university administrators responded creatively and admirably. President John Nicklow at the University of New Orleans required more students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, noting that unused federal money lying fallow could be accessed by UNO for its students. That strategy didn't hurt UNO's operational budget.
President Jim Henderson of Northwestern State University (soon to head the University of Louisiana System) budgeted wisely and used donations to cover the shortfall. As a result of these initiatives, no TOPS student at either school will owe any tuition for the spring.
Hopefully, other state institutions can follow similar strategies. That won’t solve the gap for all of them — because Louisiana State University has about half its undergraduates utilizing TOPS, this couldn’t plug its entire hole — but if all the universities tried hard, they could make many students financially whole for the second half the academic year.
But this welcome relief destroyed the narrative of the original TOPS hostage-taker, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who used threats about TOPS to bleed more taxes out of the people. Even after the Legislature obliged him to the tune of $1.6 billion, this would not pay fully for all of his spending desires. It ultimately forced him to swallow TOPS cuts. Yet, even with these reductions, the budget was inflated 9 percent over last year’s, leading Edwards to blame the program’s partial funding on the Republican-led Legislature’s refusal to increase taxes even more.
Even as TOPS now has come closer to full funding without the additional bloodletting that Edwards demanded, he doubled down on his earlier critique of frontloading TOPS dollars to students, calling that a misleading gimmick. This stood in stark contrast to remarks made by Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo, who agreed with legislative leaders that the tactic proved helpful in allowing families — and schools — extra time to try to find additional resources for spring term tuition.
Edwards also called again for full TOPS funding during next fiscal year, euphemistically asking for the Legislature to work with him on the matter — that is, increase taxes. He made no reference to solving fiscal shortfalls by making government work smarter in the manner that UNO and NSU did or to changing TOPS to make it less costly and more efficient by raising its standards.
Since necessity is the mother of invention, encouraging this attitude across Louisiana government by holding the line on spending rather than soaking taxpayers can produce efficiencies in a state that spends above the national average per capita. Some ingenuity from higher education proved the point. Now, if only Louisiana’s stubborn chief executive would accept it.
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Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at http://www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at http://www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.