House Approves TOPS Funding Plan

With the backing of Gov. Bobby Jindal, Bossier City Rep. Jane Smith's legislation diverting education and health care trust fund money into the TOPS scholarship program cleared its first hurdle Tuesday.

The House Appropriations Committee approved HB 390, a constitutional amendment to put all earnings of the Millennium Trust Fund into the TOPS Trust Fund, 15-3 and the accompanying enactment legislation with an 18-0 vote.

"If there's anything the Louisiana Legislature has done that's right, it's TOPS," Smith said promoting her legislation. "It's been a tremendous success."

The state currently has a Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) Fund, which evenly splits with the Education Excellence Fund and the Health Excellence Fund 75 percent of the available annual proceeds from a discount cigarettes lawsuit settlement. The remaining 25 percent of about $45 million a year goes into the Louisiana Fund that supplements general state spending.

Jindal said it makes sense to divert the earnings that flow into the three funds to TOPS because it serves a worthwhile purpose of helping students go to college. He said that as it is now, only the interest on the $1.3 billion that's in the cheap smokes settlement fund (Millennium Fund) can be spent.

The overall fund will remain and the health and education funds can use the interest it earns. But any new money going to the fund would go to TOPS, instead of growing the fund.

Sixty percent of the income from the settlement goes toward paying off bonds sold when the state took a lump-sum settlement that created the Millennium Fund.

Jindal and Rep. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, got into a war of words.

"This bill has nothing to do with TOPS," Cortez said. "It's how we fund TOPS."

"Make no mistake about it," Jindal countered. "This is absolutely about TOPS. Let the people decide if they want to dedicate funding to TOPS."

Rep. Harvey LeBas, D-Ville Platte, said Jindal's desire to dedicate funds to TOPS seemed contrary to his stand that too much of the state budget was dedicated.

Jindal said the money already is dedicated, and "what this does is make TOPS a priority."

Some lawmakers questioned whether it was necessary because the Legislature every year has fully funded TOPS.

Jindal said although it would not fully fund the program, it would take pressure off the general fund, and lawmakers would have to appropriate less to cover the cost of the $145 million program.

Speaker of the House Jim Tucker said he has problems with the way the appropriations bill is structured because the governor is counting on the funds to balance TOPS spending. The constitutional amendment won't be on the ballot until this fall but the new budget goes into place July 1.

The state constitution requires that the Legislature approve a balanced budget, and Tucker said he believes having contingency funding violates that provision.

"Maybe I'm the only one concerned about the constitution," he said. "It gives me heartburn."

Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said "it also gives me heartburn" but he doesn't believe it is contingency budgeting because the state has the money to cover it.

"You and I hardly disagree," Tucker said.

"We're not disagreeing," Fannin responded. "I just took a Zantac" — a heartburn pill.

Smith's bill now goes to the House for referral to the Civil Law Committee to review the language to be placed on the ballot for the constitutional amendment.