A bill aimed at controlling the costs of TOPS awards won final legislative approval Monday and is on its way to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is expected to sign it.
It earlier won Senate approval 36-0.
The plan is similar to legislation approved last year and vetoed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.
However, Edwards made it part of his legislative package, and his office said Monday the measure would help ensure the long-term stability of TOPS.
State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, is the chief sponsor of the legislation.
Under current rules, TOPS awards rise when tuition goes up. The bill would lock in the amounts to what recipients get for the 2016-17 school year.
In the future, students and families would have to absorb the costs of tuition increases, unless the Legislature provides funds for any such boost.
“The Legislature can increase the TOPS award amounts in any given year, every year, if funding is available,” said House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette and House sponsor of the bill.
Landry said TOPS has risen from a $25,000-per-year program to one set to cost $297 million for the 2016-17 school year.
“Senate Bill 174 will stabilize the costs of TOPS,” she said.
Even now, Landry said, only $110 million is budgeted for the $297 million aid program. She said there is optimism that gap will be closed.
“But that does not diminish the fact we must take steps now to ensure the stability of the program so that it does not collapse under its own weight,” Landry said.
Rep. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, urged colleagues to approve the measure, noting that it is backed by the Taylor Foundation. “Otherwise it may crater,” Price said of the popular program.
TOPS, which stands for Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, was launched as a way to encourage the state’s top students to attend Louisiana colleges and universities, if they meet academic guidelines.
Students and parents who depend on the aid have reacted strongly to talk of drastic changes in recent weeks.
However, rising costs amid state budget problems, including a $600 million shortfall starting July 1, has triggered widespread support in the Louisiana Legislature for financial controls.
Landry and other backers have repeatedly said the bill offers a floor, not a ceiling, in TOPS aid because lawmakers can increase the annual awards in future years.
Rep. Robby Carter, D-Amite, said he has concerns that students who are freshmen and sophomores are at risk of having to absorb tuition hikes of up to 20 percent because of the legislation.
“I don’t like the idea that we made a promise and now we may not be able to fulfill it,” Carter said.
The only controversy on the bill stemmed from a last-ditch bid by freshman state Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, to make sweeping changes in TOPS through an amendment to the bill.
Bagley proposed requiring students to pay tuition costs upfront, then get reimbursed at the end of the school year, if they meet required credit hours and grade-point averages. He said the move would save the state dollars.
But the effort was roundly blasted, including criticism that any such change should be filed as a separate bill and be vetted by the House and Senate education committees.
“I am late, no question about it,” Bagley conceded. The amendment failed 16-71.
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