BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — New cost controls are planned for TOPS as lawmakers struggle to pay for the nearly $300 million college tuition program.
The Louisiana House gave final legislative passage Monday to a bill that locks in the TOPS payment rate at next year's tuition level, unless lawmakers vote to raise payments. That could cost students more in the 2017-18 school year and beyond if tuition grows larger but lawmakers don't boost TOPS payments.
The proposal by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, heads to the governor's desk with a 74-20 vote.
It's the second try for the legislation. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the bill last year. But Gov. John Bel Edwards has said he will sign it into law.
Supporters said the measure tries to ensure Louisiana can continue to afford TOPS. The program's price tag has mushroomed as colleges have raised tuition to offset state budget cuts in recent years.
"The state is in dire financial straits," said Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, who handled the proposal in the House. "The only way we can sustain this program is to rein it in."
She stressed that the measure "does not permanently cap TOPS or reduce the amount of TOPS award."
"It's not really a cap. It's a floor. It's the minimum we're going to fund" for a TOPS award, Landry said.
Rep. Robby Carter, D-Greensburg, voted against the bill, saying it reneges on an agreement with students that if they reached certain performance benchmarks in school and on the ACT college entrance exam, the state would pay for their tuition.
"I don't like the idea ... of broken promises," Carter said.
But because of state budget gaps, it's unclear if students would even get full tuition funding next year or only partial awards.
The budget proposal for the upcoming school year includes enough money to pay for about one-third of the amount estimated to be needed to cover all eligible TOPS students. Lawmakers are weighing proposals to help shuffle more dollars to the program, but its funding level remains unclear.
Amid the continued financing questions, some lawmakers have proposed to shrink the program's costs by making fewer students eligible. But those proposals have failed to gain traction.
Instead, the Senate has passed a bill that would allow lawmakers to change the way cuts are divvied among TOPS students, if cuts are required. Under current law, if TOPS isn't fully funded, only students with the highest ACT scores would receive the tuition aid. The Senate-backed proposal would allow across-the-board cuts, so all students receive some tuition financing.
That proposal, also supported by the governor, awaits House consideration.