TOPS revamp not likely this session

Efforts to rein in the cost of TOPS, Louisiana’s merit-based college tuition program, appear to have hit a dead end at the state Capitol.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, a Mandeville Republican who has been leading the charge for TOPS changes this session, shelved legislation Wednesday that would have frozen awards at their current levels and said he realized a revamp isn’t likely to happen this year.

“I understand the difficulty in changing TOPS, and we had some great arguments,” Donahue said before pulling Senate Bill 340 from debate. He is chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and sponsor of the TOPS revamp legislation that got the most traction in a session that has heard a lot of talk about the need to rein in the costs of the politically popular program.

“It’s something we need to consider for the future of Louisiana,” Donahue said.

Several bills have aimed to pull back on how much the state is spending on the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. TOPS will cost the state an estimated $250 million next year and $387 million by the 2018-19 school year, according to the state’s Legislative Fiscal Office. That’s up from about $40 million in the late 1990s.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said he was encouraged by the interest in TOPS and its growing costs to the state.

“We had a good debate,” Appel said. “The main thing is, we have to address this at some point.”

SB340 sought to cap TOPS payments at next year’s rate and provide an avenue for lawmakers to make adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index. It would have saved the state an estimated $252 million over five years, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.

The state Senate rejected legislation earlier this week that would have raised the eligibility requirements for TOPS. Members debated the college tuition program for nearly two hours before Senate Bill 520 failed in a 23-16 vote Monday night. It’s the only bill that has made it to a floor vote.

A House panel rejected a similar proposal to raise the minimum grade point average and ACT score needed to qualify for TOPS.

Opponents to the changes have argued that the proposals would disproportionately affect minorities and limit higher education opportunities.

But several legislators who voted against the Senate measure still said they believe there is a need to address the program’s ballooning expenses and suggested that it be brought up again next year.

“Let’s find another solution,” state Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said of SB520. “Let’s look at it again next year.”

Donahue, who didn’t respond to The Advocate’s request for an interview Wednesday, had argued that the legislation would curb costs and set higher standards for students.

TOPS pays tuition and some fees for students who meet and maintain certain academic requirements, which SB520 sought to raise slightly, cutting an estimated 3,600 students from the program and saving an estimated $26 million in it’s first year of implementation, based on current figures.

Since its creation, TOPS has paid for more than 620,000 Louisiana high school students to attend in-state colleges and universities. About 47,000 students currently are receiving TOPS funds.

In addition to bills that have called for scaling back the program, some lawmakers also have suggested creating a system where students would be required to pay back their TOPS awards if they drop out of college or perform poorly.

State Rep. Joe Harrison, a Republican from Napoleonville who also authored TOPS bills this session, said the state is giving away too much money to students who aren’t going to class.

“My God, when do the taxpayers say, ‘Enough is enough’?” Harrison said. “It’s unacceptable, as a taxpayer first and foremost.”

He said that lawmakers need to acknowledge the fiscal constraints the state faces.

“We’re making a lot of bad loans right now,” he said. “There’s nothing to stop the bleeding.”

State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, pushed for the first year of the program be converted to a student loan, forgivable if students keep their eligibility during their first year of college.

A report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office last year showed that 44 percent of students lost their TOPS awards between 2002 and 2008, and more than half of those lost the scholarship during the first year of college.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more legislative coverage, follow our blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .