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Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU student Will Parrie, a junior from Mandeville studying sports administration, holds a 'Save Our School' sign while wearing a dollar bill taped over his moth in protest, Thursday at a rally against the higher education budget cuts at the State Capitol.

Travis Spradling

It says a lot about the state of affairs at the Capitol that both lawmakers and the governor are touting full funding of the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships as one of this year's signature accomplishments.

Until a year ago, there wasn't even a question over whether students who met the middling requirements would get to attend public colleges without paying tuition. The Legislature had never failed to appropriate enough money to pay for the program, despite a price tag that has risen every time tuition bills have gone up.

And the hard-fought budget for the year that starts next week, which passed only after Gov. John Bel Edwards called lawmakers into special session, doesn't solve the program's problems, or the overall state budget's structural challenges; it merely offers a yearlong reprieve — and even that's assuming that revenues don't come up short midyear and force cuts.

Last year's 30 percent shortfall, amid a serious budget crisis, definitely shook faith in TOPS and caused some students to shop around. So it makes sense that, right after the Legislature adjourned, LSU's Alumni Association marked the return to normal by inviting them back into the fold.

"LSU is going to try to recruit some of those high school seniors who chose to go out-of-state because they were uncertain about TOPS," the group's blast email said.

But while their TOPS awards are probably safe for the 2017-2018 year, there's no guarantee that the same thing will happen in 2018-2019 or beyond.

If this year's budget negotiations were tough, even more daunting challenges lie ahead. Topping the list is the fiscal cliff, the looming loss of $1.2 billion or so in temporary revenue slated to fall off the books a year from now that lawmakers had planned to address during this year's session, but didn't.

They also failed to pass several proposals to restructure TOPS.

One idea, a bill by Baton Rouge Republican Franklin Foil, would have slightly tightened eligibility requirements by raising the minimum high school core curriculum grade-point average from 2.5 to 2.75. Another proposal by New Orleans Democrat Gary Carter would have introduced a need-based element to the formula when there's a shortfall. But neither made it through the process. 

Lawmakers did adopt a resolution by Senate Education Committee chairman Blade Morrish, a Republican from Jennings, to study the program and report back before next year's session.

In one way, that's actually not a bad idea. Opponents of Foil's approach worried that it would disproportionately impact low-income students who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford college, and it's important to understand just how much.

On the other hand, we all know what often happens when lawmakers opt to study rather than act.

And no study can point the way around the underlying policy dilemma here: At some point, lawmakers will have to decide whether the program's top priority is to help those who wouldn't get to attend college otherwise, to keep the best and brightest in state — or just continue to provide an entitlement program that benefits even wealthy families and wins votes, but keeps costing taxpayers more and more money.

To believe the matter is settled is to believe that the Louisiana Legislature will rise to the occasion next time, and make the hard choices necessary to put both the budget and the TOPS program on more stable footing. Based on the past couple of years, is there anyone who would put all their eggs in that basket?

So while it's understandable that state officials and boosters for local colleges are celebrating full funding — and entirely fair for Republicans who pushed hard for it to point out that Edwards' initial proposal included another shortfall — it's also premature to suggest that the threat has passed.

If anything, the situation is even more uncertain going forward.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.