Last Modified: Thursday, April 25, 2013 6:54 PM
BATON ROUGE — The Senate Education Committee on Thursday rejected a bill by Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish that would have curbed the rapid growth of the TOPS scholarship program.
Any legislation dealing with the popular grant program, which pays college tuition for Louisiana high school graduates who meet scholastic requirements, has tough sledding. Gov. Bobby Jindal said he would veto any changes, and legislators know it is popular with constituents.
Morrish, R-Jennings, said his measure didn’t do away with TOPS but was designed to reign in the program. It grows primarily because of tuition increases by higher education institutions.
“We can continue TOPS and not be fiscally out of control,” he said. “This is an opportunity to secure TOPS.”
The program cost $35 million when it started in the late-1990s and has grown to more than $200 million, Morrish said.
He said after the meeting that he understood the opposition to changing TOPS. He said many Louisiana residents consider it the only thing they get back from the government.
However, he said Georgia, Arkansas and Florida have had to scale back similar programs because of mounting costs.
Senate Bill 83 said the maximum TOPS award amount could not exceed the college or university tuition paid for the 2012-2013 award year, plus 10 percent. The amount could be adjusted beginning with the 2014-2015 fiscal year and every other year thereafter.
Those adjustments would be made based on the Higher Education Price Index. Morrish said after the meeting that he would have accepted any other price index.
The Legislative Fiscal Office in its fiscal note said the bill would save $21.4 million in fiscal year 2014, $31.8 million in 2016, $59.1 million in 2017 and $74 million in 2018.
“Nothing happens for the next two years,” Morrish said. He called it a “fair, generous, liberal bill.”
“The Legislature can take the fiscal issue out of TOPS and manage it carefully,” he said.
Morrish said Georgia has a Choice scholarship program and has had to reduce grants to less than $3,000 per student because of rising costs.
“We don’t want TOPS to go this way,” he said. “It needs to be capped, but the bill allows it to be raised with an escalation clause.”
Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said TOPS has gone to a level that hadn’t been perceived before.
“It’s time to look at TOPS in its entirety,” Erwin said.
James Caillier, executive director of the Taylor Foundation that originated the TOPS concept, spoke against the bill. He said 60 percent of TOPS students graduate, compared with 30 percent of students without the scholarships.
“TOPS money is well worth it,” Caillier said. “The program is serving the state well.
Russell Armstrong with the governor’s office also spoke against the bill. He said Jindal believes Louisiana needs more of its students studying in the state.