Call it a Solomon’s choice, or something like that.
With the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students facing a major shortfall, should lawmakers stick with the current rules, award as many full scholarships as they can afford to the highest performing students — 17,000 out of more than 50,000, based on the current budget — and leave those who miss the cutoff out in the cold?
Or should they spread the sacrifice evenly, give at least some aid to everyone who now qualifies, and leave students responsible for finding way to pay the balance of their tuition?
Based on a unanimous Senate vote this week, the political class is clearly inclined to go with the latter approach. Senate Bill 470, by Education Committee Chairman Blade Morrish, now goes to the House. If it passes there, Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he’d sign it.
As stressful as the waiting is for all the families trying to figure out their plans for fall, both lawmakers and the governor are hoping the debate turns out to be academic.
Democrats and Republicans alike say they want to fully fund TOPS, but each side has a different idea on how to get there. Edwards is pushing for a special revenue-raising session in June, and has cited the need to get the TOPS situation settled before school starts as one reason for urgency. Some Republicans, led by House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry, don’t want to come back into special session until fall, but hope to find money to pay for the program in full during the current budget process, a $750 million hole notwithstanding.
Politically speaking, the TOPS debate may offer two unappealing choices, but that’s nothing compared to the larger discussion of whether the state needs new revenue or can make do with what’s already coming in.
But this much is clear: By choosing the spread-the-pain approach, lawmakers are poised to create about 50,000 new lobbyists demanding that they finally figure something out.
‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.