cnb LEG 6-2 ts 2571.jpg

Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge

Advocate staff photo by Travis Spradling

One key question heading in to the first legislative session since the cash-strapped state shorted the popular TOPS college scholarship program was whether lawmakers would have the appetite to rein in the rampant growth in the program's cost. A second question was what shape that reform might take.

In a lengthy House Education Committee hearing Wednesday, the answers started to emerge. Yes, the Legislature might be willing to act. And toughening up the middling academic requirements to get the basic TOPS award is apparently more politically palatable than factoring in whether students really need financial help to attend college.

As of now, students have to keep a 2.5 GPA in the high school core curriculum to get a scholarship. House Bill 117, by Republican state Rep. Franklin Foil of Baton Rouge, originally proposed raising it to 3.0. An amended version creating a 2.75 GPA threshold starting in 2021 made it out of the committee on a 9-3 vote, and will now head to the full House.

Not so a measure by Democratic state Rep. Gary Carter of New Orleans, which would have given preference to high-achieving and lower-income students in the case of future (and entirely likely) shortfalls.

Carter's bill to shield students who achieve at least a 30 on the ACT or come from families with incomes of $60,000 or less came up a single vote short — despite emotional testimony from lower-income high school students and reminders that the late oilman Pat Taylor's original private scholarship program, which eventually grew into the public Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, was targeted to high-achieving kids from low-income backgrounds. Now, about 40 percent of recipients come from families with incomes of $100,000 or more.

That could well continue, even if lawmakers eventually adopt Foil's bill, which is not at all assured. What is clearer than ever at this point is that TOPS has become a jealously defended government benefit for all, regardless of their financial resources. And as politicians dealing with the health care law in Washington are quickly realizing, once the government provides a benefit, it's incredibly hard to take it away.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.