Kleckley: State must consider capping TOPS

The state will have to consider capping TOPS as the increasing costs of the free college tuition program is putting a strain on the state budget, House Speaker Chuck Kleckley said Wednesday.

“We are going to have to find some way to control TOPS,” said Kleckley, R-Lake Charles.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students is a merit-based scholarship for college students that is projected to cost the state $204 million in the state fiscal year that begins July 1. At the beginning of the 2002 fiscal year, the program topped the $100 million mark.

Kleckley and House Speaker Pro-tem Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, are sponsoring House Bill 194, that would give higher education management boards tuition raising authority within limits approved by the Legislature. The bill was prefiled for consideration in the legislative session that opens Monday.

It is a widely held belief in Louisiana that any college tuition increase has to be approved by two-thirds vote of the state Legislature — the toughest thresholds in the country.

A 1995 state constitutional provision, approved by voters, requires a two-thirds vote by the Legislature before a fee charged by a public agency can be increased.

One year later, then-Attorney General Richard Ieyoub issued an opinion, which has been interpreted ever since that tuition is a fee.

The Regents said they are discussing the matter with the state’s four public college and university systems before deciding whether they want to file a lawsuit challenging Ieyoub’s opinion.

“I don’t think that higher education should have to come to the Legislature for tuition increases,” Kleckley said. “The time is now, the time is right.”

Kleckley said universities need the ability to “maintain the level of funding they need.” But increased tuition translates to increased state dollars required to cover the costs of TOPS, he said.

“We will have to find a way realistically to put a cap on TOPS,” Kleckley said.

Kleckley did not propose a way to rein in TOPS spending.

He said he mentioned the TOPS issue as he met with Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell.

In past years, legislators have proposed such ideas as increasing the ACT and grade point average required for program eligibility; and making those who lose TOPS because of poor grades or insufficient hours of coursework repay the scholarship money. Legislators have been resistant to substantially changing the popular program.

The Board of Regents wants more stable sources of state funding for colleges and universities and increased authority for higher education management boards to set tuition.

They are also pursuing measures where schools will be able to charge more for high-cost, high-demand programs and to charge students on a per-credit basis. Schools are currently limited to charging students tuition for only 12 credits per semester.

The Regents oversee the LSU, Southern University, University of Louisiana and Louisiana Community and Technical College systems.

The Jindal administration’s proposed budget for higher education includes $348 million in one-time, non-recurring revenues. The Regents have identified another $141 million in Jindal’s budget that may not materialize.