Stephanie Grace: TOPS shortfall may be Gov. Edwards’ strongest bargaining chip as budget showdown looms _lowres

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signs a bill to expand and jump-start Louisiana's medical marijuana program, on Thursday, May 19, 2106, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

For a man who won the election last fall by a more-than-comfortable 12-point margin, Gov. John Bel Edwards is visibly struggling to get lawmakers to follow his lead.

One major plank of his campaign, a modest $1.25-an-hour minimum wage increase, appears stalled. Another high-profile proposal, a bill to make it easier for women to pursue allegations of gender discrimination in pay, died last week in a legislative committee that had been stacked with likely opponents.

In fact, the fate of the pay equity proposal is just one more byproduct of the majority Republican House’s inauguration day vote to buck the Democratic governor’s choice for speaker and elect a Republican.

Unlike the upper chamber, where Democrat-turned-Republican Senate President John Alario still sees a big part of his job as giving the governor a chance to succeed, new Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras and some of the even more conservative members of his party are out to establish their independence from the administrative branch.

But if old-school deference has gone out of style, the all-important budget showdown suggests Edwards still has at least one useful tool in the toolbox: leverage.

If there’s one area of widespread agreement so far, it’s that just about everyone, Republican and Democrat, wants to fully fund the TOPS college scholarships for next year, despite a $600 million overall shortfall.

In the immediate term, that may be the program’s doom.

Read between the lines of the action, and of Advocate writer Tyler Bridges’ weekend status report, and the message is that protecting the full award for all 50,000-plus eligible students this fall is Edwards’ strongest bargaining chip as he maneuvers to get lawmakers into a revenue-raising special session next month.

Many House Republicans are resisting the idea of going right into a second special session. After such a wrenching special session earlier this year, they’d prefer to wait until fall to see how the money flows from changes they’ve already made.

But this group also showed its collective hand when it passed a budget out of the Appropriations Committee that fully funded TOPS yet potentially crippled state health services, including the public-private safety net hospitals that replaced the old Charity system.

If protecting the immensely popular TOPS is a priority for everyone, so is the desire to settle the program’s finances as quickly as possible.

Under current law governing what happens in case of a shortfall, the highest-performing students would still have their full tuition covered, while those below the cutoff would be left out in the cold.

Under a proposal that has Edwards’ support, the money would be spread evenly so that everyone now eligible would get a partial award. In either case, though, it’s awfully late for students and their families to be left waiting for crucial information for the next academic year.

And from all appearances, those families — including the many middle and upper-middle class constituents who benefit from TOPS and who reside in Republican districts — are speaking out.

Following the Appropriations Committee vote, the full House adjusted the numbers and left TOPS $72 million short.

Now the budget’s in the hands of the more Edwards-friendly Senate, which is likely to keep a shortfall in place, both because it recognizes other desperate needs and because doing so could well force reluctant House members to the table in June.

Students of state government will notice an irony here. With so many other budget areas protected from cuts by statute or under the constitution, higher education and health care are usually left to fight over scarce resources during tough times.

This may be that rare case in which the desire to take care of higher ed actually benefits health care as well.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracela.