BATON ROUGE — Though he called it bad policy, Gov. John Bel Edwards upheld the front-loaded approach to the TOPS program that aims to give college students full tuition funding for the fall semester and only 42 percent financing for the spring.
As the new financial year began Friday, the Democratic governor announced his signing of the budget bill passed by lawmakers in the special session that ended a week ago, to spend the $263 million raised through various tax changes.
While he issued two line-item vetoes, he left the TOPS language intact despite his opposition to its inclusion. He said striking the provision “would likely lead to litigation that would cause significant uncertainty and chaos mere weeks before the fall semester begins.”
But he made it clear in a letter to Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, that he was unhappy with the TOPS approach.
“This scheme does not give students the ability to fully prepare for the spring semester and significantly complicates applications for financial aid,” the governor wrote.
Edwards also pointed out that the front-loading likely still won’t give TOPS students full tuition coverage in the fall, because not enough money was provided in the provision to cover tuition hikes that schools might adopt.
House GOP leaders pushed for the front-loading of TOPS, saying they were hopeful the state could bring in more money than estimated from tax bills passed over multiple legislative sessions since February. If no new money arrives, they said a delay for the cut would give students and parents more time to prepare for the reduction.
TOPS would cost about $294 million in the 2016-17 school year to fully cover tuition for the more than 50,000 eligible students. Lawmakers allocated about $88 million less than that, a 30 percent cut. Democratic lawmakers wanted the cuts spread evenly across both semesters, covering 70 percent of students’ tuition costs in both fall and spring.
Edwards struck language from the budget bill that steered $250,000 from the Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities to a child development center in the Shreveport area, saying it would force a cut to a statewide program that helps disabled children.
He also rejected a provision that required any additional money, if the state gets more dollars than projected from the tax bills passed by lawmakers, to be split one-third for TOPS, one-third for public colleges and one-third for health services.
“I have pledged to be straightforward and honest in providing realistic budgetary expectations for our state government and our citizens,” Edwards wrote. “This means the budget must reflect the actual revenue.”
The more than $26 billion budget that took effect Friday includes cuts across a wide array of government programs.
K-12 public schools are receiving $24 million less than they got last year. A newly built juvenile prison facility isn’t opening, and the corrections department is taking an $18 million cut. State parks are getting fewer dollars, along with Louisiana’s voucher program, which is expected to start a waiting list.
Safety-net hospitals that care for the poor received the full amount sought by the Edwards administration, though the hospital operators say that’s not enough. College campuses were largely shielded from slashing, though they may take a hit if the TOPS cuts chase students from school.
The Edwards administration also has asked departments to set aside about 5 percent of their budget allocation in reserves, amid worries the state may close the books on the just-ended financial year with a deficit of up to $200 million, which would require midyear budget cuts.