TOPS Takes Priority In Senate Argument

Despite complaints that it was taking money from health care, a Senate committee Monday advanced Gov. Bobby Jindal's plan to constitutionally dedicate funds for TOPS scholarships.

SB53 is needed, said Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, the author, so the Taylor Opportunity Plan for Students will have a guaranteed source of revenue — although not nearly enough to entirely fund it.

"It's necessary to provide some long-term, base level funding for it to make sure those students who have earned those scholarships get them," Alario said.

Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, complained that the plan transfers from the Health Excellence Fund and the Education Excellence Fund money obtained in a cheap cigarettes lawsuit settlement to supplant some of the state general fund money that now goes to the merit-based scholarships.

She said the state gets matching federal funds for the healthcare money, so that would be a wiser investment. Also, the Legislature has never failed to fund TOPS and it has never had to suffer budget cuts, like healthcare does.

"I cannot believe you are asking us to amend the constitution to do this," Jackson said. "If you're going to cover only a fraction of the cost of TOPS, why not continue using the money in a way you could double your money?"

"There are constituencies this administration wants to protect," said Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, the only other Senate Finance Committee member to join Jackson in trying to defeat the bill, which was approved 6-2 and sent to the Senate for debate.

By taking the money from the education and healthcare funds, the constitutional amendment would shift $92 million to TOPS. The program will cost about $174 million next year.

The committee turned back a Jackson amendment that would dedicate 30 percent of the money to scholarships for low-income students who might not qualify for TOPS or do qualify and need help paying other expenses.

"I'm not supportive of this bill," she said. "If we're going to do this, it's only fair that we dedicate and protect funding for students in Louisiana who have financial need."

She said the state has a high poverty rate but only 17.5 percent of state aid for all scholarships is need-based.

Alario objected, saying the amendment "weakens the amount available for students who earn scholarships."

The governor is counting on the bill passing. The funds are in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"TOPS is probably our most successful program," Alario said. "It teaches children that there are rewards for working hard. The way that we solve poverty is providing better education."

Jackson and Peterson said the only way to improve education is to start in early grades and maintain quality throughout.

Barry Erwin of the Council for a Better Louisiana supports the bill. He said that since the cost of TOPS escalates yearly, "this mitigates it to some extent" and would "help free up some higher education dollars now dedicated to TOPS."

Since SB53 is a constitutional amendment, it requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and approval of voters in an election to be enacted.