What you need to know about upcoming changes to once-untouchable TOPS _lowres

Louisiana House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, left, speaks with Rep. Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, ahead of Gov. John Bel Edwards' budget cut presentation to the committee, Tuesday, April 12. Edwards is proposing to close a $750 million budget shortfall with cuts to the TOPS free college tuition program, safety net hospitals for the poor and public schools. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

For years the Louisiana House’s right-wingers have yapped at the wheels of the way things have been done in this state for generations.

On Jan. 11, the House’s GOP majority finally caught that truck by asserting its independence and refusing to let the Democratic governor choose the chamber’s leadership.

Now what?

Well, when confronted with a list of budget cuts that threatens the popular TOPS tuition-paying grants, the House’s chief money man last week suggested kicking the can down the road. That same day, the House majority stymied the drive toward Real ID compliance by creating a second identification card the state is unprepared to create.

Because the newly independent legislators couldn’t come up with enough cuts and refused to raise more revenue during last month’s special session, Gov. John Bel Edwards needs to hack about $750 million from state spending to balance the budget by June 30.

The governor, personally, announced Tuesday that in addition to cutting hospitals — on which the poor rely — by more than $400 million, the state now could fund only about $110 million of the TOPS entitlement program so popular among the middle class. Only about 17,400 of the 51,000 or so students qualifying for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students will see any money.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, took to the radio airwaves Wednesday to scold Edwards for scaring people with all this cutting TOPS talk, saying the governor is trying to raise support for new taxes.

“We can reprioritize and maybe say, ‘OK, we can take some money out of a different agency or another department and use that money to offset the reductions to TOPS,’” Henry said. “We can come up with our own list of suggestions.”

But five weeks into the session and the only list is the one Edwards drafted.

Henry made his bones — and lost his seat on Appropriations in 2012 — by complaining about the budget practices of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, which relied on patchwork financing mixed with simple-sounding solutions that misled and diverted attention.

For instance, Henry blasted Jindal in March 2013 for basing the higher education budget on “phantom” money. “This will make it difficult for our institutions to attract and retain our students. This is truly breathtaking,” he said as a “fiscal hawk” on the outside looking in.

Meanwhile back in Baton Rouge, state Rep. Mike Johnson, a social issues warrior who is running for the U.S. Congress, diverted the Legislature’s attention with a passionate debate over Louisiana becoming compliant with the Real ID standards that in few years will be required of people using their driver’s licenses as identification to board airplanes and enter federal facilities.

The Bossier City Republican amended legislation that would have allowed Louisiana drivers to choose whether they wanted a Real ID-compliant license — basically a star stamped on the permit, since the state already meets the dozen or so other standards.

A very similar bill had been passed by the 2014 Legislature, but was vetoed by Jindal. He cited concerns by the Eagle Forum, Louisiana Family Forum and Tea Party of Louisiana that complying with Real ID would “compromise Louisiana’s sovereignty.”

Johnson’s amendment would create a new card, for the residents who want it, that would meet the federal standards. The driver’s license would remain as it is. He says the Louisiana Family Forum, whose leaders no longer have the run of the Governor’s Office they had enjoyed under Jindal, is OK with Johnson’s plan.

Karen St. Germain, however, fans herself and rolls her eyes.

True, as legislator she sponsored the vetoed 2014 bill, but now as head of the state Office of Motor Vehicles, St. Germain is charged with figuring out the nuts and bolts of making Johnson’s idea work. Right now, she’s frustrated.

Johnson’s simple solution is going to require a separate secured database for the new card, she said. How many people are going to want it? What new equipment will be necessary? New employees needed? Definitely, a lot of training is in the offing.

Worse, the state will be noncompliant with the federal regulations, so OMV is going to have to stamp that fact on all driver’s licenses, St. Germain said.

“If you refuse to come in and have your license stamped ‘noncompliant,’ then we’re going to have no choice but to cancel your license,” St. Germain said.

So for her at least, this newly independent House driving the governing truck, instead of barking at it, things are the same as they ever were.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com and is on Twitter, @Mark BallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.