Update, Feb. 12, 5:12 p.m.
Gov. John Bel Edwards continued his TOPS talk this afternoon with a radio interview with Jim Engster.
“I, and every legislator that I know, wants to continue funding for the TOPS program, but we have to solve the (budget) problem to make that possible,” Edwards said. “I cannot guarantee students that the general fund portion of TOPS will be funded next year.”
Edwards also took aim at State Treasurer John Kennedy, who stated on Thursday in a televised rebuttal to the governor’s address that the current year’s budget shortfall could be handled without raising taxes.
“The treasurer is off base,” Edwards said, adding that a cuts-only approach is “just not feasible.”
Update, Feb. 12, 1:15 p.m.
Conservative activist Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum, issued a statement casting doubt on Gov. John Bel Edwards recent statements that TOPS could be in jeopardy for the next fiscal year.
Edwards issued a statement Friday that said TOPS is only funded 25 percent for the next fiscal year, which could result in a smaller number of awards.
Mills said he believes the state Legislature will ultimately fund TOPS fully.
“TOPS is subject to legislative appropriation. The Governor has no authority to cut TOPS. Even if Gov. Edwards uses his unilateral authority to reduce the State General Fund by 3% and statutory dedications by 5%, the legislature can appropriate money in a supplemental bill in the regular session to fully fund TOPS. The Governor may line item veto it, but the legislature will override that veto,” Mills said.
For his part, Edwards did not suggest cutting TOPS, but he said it was not fully funded and he hoped the Legislature would work to change that.
“John Bell’s [sic] actual strategy last night came straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook,” Mills continued. ‘It is a classic bait and switch: tell them the sky has fallen on TOPS, and while they are fussing about it and the end of college football, force the largest tax increase in the history of Louisiana!”
Update, Feb. 12, 12:38 p.m.
Gov. John Bel Edwards on Friday reiterated that students would not be on the hook for the shortfall in budgeted funds for the TOPS scholarship.
“As I said last night, students on TOPS this semester will not see cuts,” he said in a statement. “The universities will absorb the TOPS shortfall this year. Students will not receive any bills for this shortfall or lose any TOPS awards this semester.”
He also restated that schools and universities would only be paid for 80 percent of TOPS bills, because of poor budgeting from the previous year. But for the fiscal year that starts July 1, Edwards said, TOPS awards could be limited because of lack of funds based on current budget projections.
“The budget problems created by the previous administration do have the potential to hurt students directly,” he said. “Next year, as it stands, TOPS is only funded 25 percent, unless the legislature acts to change that. This means fewer TOPS scholarships will be awarded next year. That is why it is so important for the legislature to work with me to balance this budget and prevent future cuts to the TOPS Scholarship Program.”
LOFSA Executive Director Sujuan Boutte said Friday that TOPS payments will continue to schools but only up to the 80 percent that they are funded. TOPS was overbudget by $28 million, which Edwards’ administration said will have to be absorbed by the schools.
In an unprecedented move, the state’s student financial aid office on Thursday notified Louisiana’s colleges and universities that it had stopped TOPS payments because of the uncertainty related to the state budget crisis.
“Due to the possibility of state budget cuts, all TOPS payments are being suspended until further notice,” said an email from the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance that went out to all TOPS eligible institutions at 3 p.m. “More details will be provided as information becomes available.”
However, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday night that none of the 49,710 students who are TOPS recipients will have to cover the cost of their scholarships. While about 20 percent of the TOPS scholarships will not be paid, the governor said it will be the universities and colleges that will absorb the loss.
Before the governor’s statement, other higher education officials were trying to understand how the decision would impact students and the scholarship program.
Jason Droddy, executive director of policy and external affairs for LSU, said Thursday afternoon that it was unclear what the outcome will be because “we’ve never been through this before.”
“We just don’t know a whole lot; I don’t know exactly how it will affect students,” he said. “TOPS is a contract between the state and a student. And we’re just the facilitators.”
LSU has more TOPS eligible students than any other Louisiana institution with about 53 percent of its students in the program in 2014.
Gus Wales, a spokesman for LOSFA, said the email was sent out as a “precautionary measure, until we learn more about the implications of the potential budget cuts.”
TOPS, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is Louisiana’s popular college scholarship program that generally covers tuition for in-state students who meet mid-level academic benchmarks.
Tuition per semester for in-state students at LSU is about $3,500, and at Southern University it’s about $2,500.
Reimbursements for TOPS scholarships are not given to the students, rather schools bill LOSFA for the payments.
Wales said schools start to bill their office anytime after the 14th day of the semester.
“You’re just now starting to see the billing for the spring semester,” Wales said.
He declined further comment about what would happen to TOPS-eligible students.
The Legislature is preparing to meet in special session to try to close what Edwards said is the largest midyear budget shortfall in state history. The shortfall is estimated at more than $850 million for the four months left in the fiscal year.
TOPS is over budget by $28.3 million, according to the state Division of Administration.
Higher education leaders started sounding the alarms about TOPS being over budget last year. Lawmakers dedicated about $265 million to TOPS for the year, but by August, LOSFA already was projecting a shortfall, saying legislators didn’t account for tuition hikes made possible through the GRAD Act.
Legislators have for years been dealing with the dramatic increases in the cost of TOPS to the state. In 2001, TOPS had a price tag of about $104 million. But it’s projected to swell beyond $300 million by 2020.
While LSU leads in TOPS eligible students, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette has 37 percent of its students in TOPS, Nicholls and Louisiana Tech have about 35 percent and the University of New Orleans has 23 percent. About 10 percent of Southern University’s students receive the scholarship.
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