Lawmakers say TOPS is priority

BATON ROUGE — Legislative leaders told higher education officials Monday they hope to fully fund the TOPS college tuition program in next year’s budget, rather than leaving students with only a portion of their tuition paid.

But they stopped short of making promises.

House Speaker Taylor Barras; Rep. Walt Leger, the top-ranking House Democrat; and Sen. Sharon Hewitt, who sits on the budget-writing Finance Committee, said at a conference that TOPS is a funding priority.

“It is probably the thing I get the most phone calls on and emails on,” said Hewitt, R-Slidell.

In Gov. John Bel Edwards’ 2017-18 budget proposal, TOPS would only pay for about 70 percent of students’ tuition next year, just like this year. The Democratic governor proposes $209 million for the tuition awards, $82 million less than needed to pay full tuition for eligible students who meet the performance standards to receive the aid.

It would be the second time since the program’s start that it wouldn’t completely cover tuition.

The Edwards administration is expected to propose tax hikes to raise more money for Louisiana’s treasury in the upcoming legislative session, adding new dollars would help fill the TOPS gap.

But it’s unclear if revenue-raising measures will pass in a Republican-majority Legislature, particularly the conservative GOP-led House.

Republicans Barras and Hewitt told higher education leaders at Monday’s Trusteeship Conference that they support “scrubbing the budget” to help shift more money to TOPS.

Barras, R-New Iberia, said lawmakers in the House will want any more dollars available by identifying efficiencies or making cuts elsewhere to help cover TOPS costs. Hewitt said she believes the state has opportunities for savings in health care.

Leger, D-New Orleans, said if lawmakers don’t come up with the dollars to pay the full price tag for the college tuition program, they need to consider adjustments. He said across-the-board reductions to every student’s tuition aid disproportionately hit low-income and first-time students. He didn’t describe how he believed the program should be altered if under-funded.

The three legislators who spoke at the conference also said they’d support another attempt to give Louisiana’s four public college system management boards the authority to change tuition and fee rates on college campuses without needing approval from state lawmakers.

Voters rejected the proposal last fall, but the lawmakers said it wasn’t marketed well.

“I would encourage the next time we get a chance to talk about tuition autonomy that the campaign that we put together to pass it is: ‘Currently, the Legislature sets tuition. Nobody trusts them. Take that authority away from them,'” Leger said to laughter.



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