Senate committee OKs TOPS, tuition bills

A bill that would cap TOPS spending and another measure that could strip the Louisiana Legislature of its authority to set college and university tuition narrowly passed their first legislative hurdles Thursday.

The state Senate Education Committee approved both bills on a 4-3 vote. The measures, sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Jack Donahue, now go to the full Senate for a vote.

Legislators are considering a long list of bills that could impact the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, called TOPS, because the merit-based scholarship’s costs have been growing annually. But of the measures aimed at stiffening eligibility standards and curbing spending, only Donahue’s bills have had traction.

Senate Bill 340, advanced Thursday, would freeze TOPS awards at their current level. They would not increase with future tuition hikes. Every two years, the awards could be increased to align TOPS with changes in the Consumer Price Index.

In five years, the bill would save state government an estimated $250 million, said Donahue, R-Mandeville.

Donahue said something must be done to limit the growth of TOPS, which is estimated at its current rate to cost the state about $390 million by 2019.

“The bill says we’re going to limit what we’re spending to what we’re spending right now,” he said. TOPS is estimated to cost the state $235 million in the new state budget year, which begins July 1.

State Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said TOPS is one of the most important and impactful programs supported by the Legislature. He said he’d prefer to see the program raise the standards, which Donahue is proposing in other legislation, but continue to provide full tuition to deserving students.

Senate Bill 343, which also advanced Thursday, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide whether the tuition-setting authority should be taken away from the Legislature.

Donahue said politics should be removed from the decision-making process affecting tuition increases. Louisiana is one of the only states in the nation where the Legislature, in many cases, approves tuition increases.

Those decisions should be left to the higher education boards and leaders, who have long sought that authority, he said.

“We have some pretty talented people involved in all those levels, and us sitting here making decisions about tuition is, perhaps, not the best way to do it,” he said. “I think we strangle the university systems.”

Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, supported both measures. He said both measures would help Louisiana’s colleges and universities catch up to the regional tuition averages.

“This gives them the ability to manage their finances and gives them the ability to generate resources as the state has been cutting,” Erwin said. “I really don’t think you’re going to see any institution go way out of line … but this will give them some flexibility.”

The tuition proposal requires the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate and a majority of voters statewide in the Nov. 4 election.

There’s a long list of bills that could impact TOPS this year, but of the ones that aim to curb spending, only Donahue’s bills have had traction.

The state Senate was expected to hear Donahue’s Senate Bill 520 on Thursday, but a vote has been postponed until Monday.

SB520 would increase the minimum requirements to receive TOPS. The grade point average minimum would go from 2.5 to 2.75, and or an ACT score of a 21 instead of a 20.

He proposed that 25 percent of the savings to the TOPS program go toward Go Grants, which are needs-based scholarships.

The higher standards, based on today’s numbers, would eliminate 8,000 students and save $27 million.

SB520 was debated shortly on Wednesday afternoon in the state Senate, and some opponents expressed concern that the higher standards would disproportionately hurt minority students.

State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, expressed concern that the bill would reduce the number of college graduates. But Donahue said he felt that many students would push themselves a little harder to ensure they meet the requirements.

On Tuesday, another TOPS bill proposed by state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Houma, similarly intended to raise TOPS standards and restructure awards. That bill failed in the House education committee.