Grace Notes: TOPS might be Gov. Edwards’ best bet to secure special session next month _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Participants enjoy the free food and information booths. LSU's Fall Fest celebration took place on Oct.. 2, 2015, at the LSU Parade Ground. The annual event included food music, The Golden Band from Tiger Land, LSU Golden Girls, LSU Cheerleaders. and a welcome from LSU President F. King Alexander.

This much is clear from what how the legislative season has gone so far: Just about everyone, Republican and Democrat, wants to fully fund the TOPS college scholarships for next year.

In the immediate term, that may be the program’s doom. Read between the lines of the action, and of Advocate writer Tyler Bridges’ weekend status report, and the message is that protecting the full award for all 50,000-plus eligible students this fall is Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ strongest bargaining chip as he maneuvers to get lawmakers into a revenue-raising special session next month.

There’s resistance to this idea among a powerful group of House Republicans. But this group also showed its collective hand when it passed a budget out of the Appropriations Committee that fully funded TOPS but potentially crippled state health services. Protecting TOPS, it appears, is the major priority for these members’ middle and upper-middle class constituents, which makes it a major priority for them.

The full House adjusted the numbers and left TOPS $72 million short. Now the budget’s in the hands of the more Edwards-friendly Senate, which is likely to keep some sort of shortfall in place, both because it recognizes other needs and because doing so could force reluctant House members to the table in June.

Students of state government will notice an irony here. With so many other budget areas protected from cuts by statute or under the constitution, higher education and health care are usually left to fight over scarce resources during tough times. This may be that rare case in which the desire to take care of higher ed actually benefits health care as well.

‘Grace notes’ is a daily feature by Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace. To read more of her content, including her full columns, click here.