Panel rejects limit on TOPS payments

The Senate Education Committee rejected legislation that would have put a cap on TOPS, the state’s popular merit-based college scholarship program.

State Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, said his Senate Bill 83 would limit the scholarship amount to 10 percent above the tuition being charged in the spring by the state’s colleges and universities.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students pays tuition and some fees for students who meet several academic requirements.

The program is expected to cost $204 million next year. The costs grow each time colleges raise tuition.

Morrish argued that without financial controls, TOPS would become too expensive for state government to pay. SB83 would help stabilize the costs and thereby protect the program for years to come, he said.

Additionally, legislation is pending that would give the colleges and universities more ability to raise tuition, which TOPS currently would have to cover. “We can’t give the universities a blank check to raise tuition,” Morrish said.

Barry Erwin, president and chief executive officer at Council for A Better Louisiana, a group that lobbies for education and government policies, said the legislation would strengthen TOPS, which was created when state government paid for most of higher education.

“We’ve totally flipped that model,” Erwin said. Now, with increased tuition being charged to replace decreased state funding, students and families are paying the bulk of the costs, he said.

Russell Armstrong, speaking for the Governor’s Office, reminded committee members that Gov. Bobby Jindal opposed capping TOPS awards.

Jindal has said that TOPS has worked as advertised, encouraging more students to attend and graduate college in Louisiana.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, moved to involuntarily defer SB83, a parliamentary move that effectively stopped the legislation from being considered further.

No committee member objected. Sitting on the panel at the time of the motions were Republican state Sens. Bodi White, of Central; Jack Donahue, of Mandeville; Conrad Appel, of Metairie; and Democrat Eric LaFleur, of Ville Platte.

After the vote, Morrish said TOPS is very popular among middle-class parents, some of whom have told him they believe the program is the only benefit they personally receive from state government. “When you have a governor saying, ‘Don’t do it, it gives you a lot of coverage,’ ” Morrish said.