For the past year, a legislative task force has been working away, gathering data and trying to come up with a proposal to curtail the future cost of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships, or TOPS. This, it has long seemed, would be where the politics over the immensely popular entitlement, which pays tuition but not fees at state colleges for students who meet relatively modest benchmarks, would play out this year.
But with the state's fiscal cliff coming into full view, there's likely to be a more immediate fight, not over the program's future but its present, over whether the money will be there to pay awards that thousands of Louisiana families are counting on for next year.
Like the Children's Health Insurance Program up in Washington, an initiative that just about everyone claims to support but is about to run dry, TOPS is something that few Louisiana politicians want to touch. Yet like CHIP, it's become a pawn in a larger fight over paying for government services, and political bragging rights.
Here's where we are right now: Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to call a special session for right after Mardi Gras to replace the revenue from temporary sales taxes that will fall off the books July 1 if nothing is done. But he says he won't do it unless the state House's legislative leaders, who are mostly Republicans and have sharply resisted Edwards' pleas to adopt revenue-raising recommendations from another legislative task force, agree to a framework.
Because lawmakers cannot raise taxes during regular legislative sessions in even-numbered years, the only other option is for lawmakers to come back following the regular session, which runs until June, and pass something at the eleventh hour.
In the meantime, Edwards must introduce a balanced budget based on revenue that is projected to exist now. And given that higher education is one of the few areas he can cut, much of the shortfall will likely come from there. The governor is scheduled to introduce that doomsday budget Monday, and there are reports that it will include massive cuts to TOPS.
So here's where the politics comes in.
The best way for the governor to bring lawmakers to the table may be to convince them they need to engage to save TOPS.
But the best way for Edwards' critics to make him look bad is to paint him as the heavy who doesn't back paying for the program, and to point to his own introduced budget as evidence. That's a lot harder to do if you agree to make the problem go away sooner rather than later. We got a taste of this sort of rhetoric last year when state Rep. Cameron Henry, the Appropriations Committee chair and a frequent adversary of Edwards' on spending, alleged in a video that the governor doesn't like TOPS.
Never mind that Edwards has said repeatedly that the budget he's mandated to introduce is not the budget he wants to enact. And never mind that he's a full-throated supporter of TOPS in its current form, to the point where he told the Press Club of Baton Rouge last week that "I don't favor changing TOPS; I favor funding TOPS."
That was an apparent commentary on any cuts or new restrictions the TOPS task force ends up proposing — perhaps converting tuition awards now pegged to 2016-2017 rates into $4,000 stipends for the most commonly used scholarships, an idea that chairman Blade Morrish, the Senate's Education Committee chair, suggested recently — which wouldn't kick in nearly in time for help address the current crisis anyway, Edwards noted.
In retrospect, it also seems to be a statement of principle in anticipation of a long fight: That if TOPS isn't fully funded — or even if this period of uncertainty drags on as parents and students have to make decisions for next year — it's not because he didn't try.