Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday he would not veto a recent measure to “front load” the TOPS scholarship awards to the fall semester — a measure passed by the Louisiana Legislature to soften the blow of failing to fully fund the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
But he nonetheless criticized the legislation, calling it a “disingenuous” budgeting gimmick crafted by members of the Louisiana Legislature. He only resisted vetoing the language, he said, because the move could lead to litigation that would cause uncertainty weeks before school is scheduled to start.
Furthermore, he said, even with front loading, TOPS awards will not be completely funded in either the fall or spring, despite the message coming from law makers who passed the change.
Dealing with a historically large state budget shortfall for the fiscal year that started Friday, the Legislature was unable to fully fund the $300 million TOPS program for the first time in its history. Students who receive TOPS — which has typically covered full tuition for its 51,000 recipients — will be responsible this year for funding 30 percent of their own tuition costs.
TOPS is a popular state-funded scholarship program that has traditionally covered university tuition for in-state students who earned mid-level academic benchmarks.
“Front loading” was a last-ditch effort by law makers to try to mitigate some of the damage done to the program by leaving it unfunded. They passed a measure they hoped would fully fund the fall semester and move all of the burden of the tuition owed to the spring semester.
For the first time, a TOPS scholarship will not cover the cost of tuition for students atten…
Advocates of the measure, like State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metarie, said the deferred bill would give students who were not expecting to be billed for their tuition an extra few months to save money or apply for a student loan, if necessary.
But opponents said it caused confusion because it misleads families into thinking the money could later be restored.
On Friday, Edwards announced that the funds for TOPS could not legally be distributed in the way the Legislature said they would be.
What it boils down to is that the “front loading” directive only applies to TOPS money raised in the second special session called this year. (The Legislature met three times this year, a regular session, sandwiched by two special sessions to raise emergency revenues.)
In the second special session, only $68 million was raised toward TOPS, which will be allocated to the fall semester awards. But the rest of the money raised for TOPS, $141.5 million, will be evenly allocated across fall and spring.
That means in the fall, TOPS recipients will have to pay roughly 5 percent of their semester tuition, and in the spring semester they will pay about 51 percent of their tuition. Those numbers are based on only the tuition of each school. If any school increases tuition before the fall semester starts — as LSU has indicated it is considering — TOPS recipients could owe even more.
“It is disingenuous for anyone in the legislature to tout this as having fully-funded this program,” Edwards said in a statement. “Students should be prepared for cuts to TOPS awards in the fall semester and an even larger cut in the spring semester. While I had a plan that would have fully-funded TOPS for the entire academic year, the legislature did not raise enough revenue or identify enough spending cuts to fully fund the program, despite having had the opportunity to do so in two special sessions.”
Edwards announced he did veto another provision tied to the “front loading” measure that directed any potential new revenue raised this year to be split evenly across TOPS, higher education and the Louisiana Department of Health.
Several legislators criticized the directive as budget trick to lead people to believing TOPS would end up being fully funded later in the year.
“From the beginning of my administration, I have made it clear that I will budget openly and honestly with the people of Louisiana,” Edwards said. “Providing for a potential appropriation of money on the mere hope that new revenues will be recognized is a continuation of the tricks and gimmicks of the previous administration.”
A full-time LSU student with TOPS will owe about $2,100 in tuition for the coming school year. A full-time Southern University student on TOPS will pay $1,490. At the University of New Orleans, TOPS students will owe $1,830, at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, they’ll owe $1,620 and at Southeastern Louisiana University, they’ll owe $1,583.
Edwards also announced Friday he had signed the supplemental appropriation bill from the second special session, which raised an extra $263 million to be applied toward the state’s $600 million anticipated budget shortfall.