BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As House lawmakers work to craft their version of next year's budget, House leaders say the main focus is on protecting the state's TOPS free college tuition program from cuts.
To help close a $600 million gap, Gov. John Bel Edwards proposed to only provide about one-third of the approximately $300 million needed to fully cover tuition costs for all eligible students in the financial year that begins July 1.
About $183 million more would be needed to fully fund the program, which is highly popular, particularly among middle class voters around the state.
"TOPS is a priority for a majority of the members," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, agreed, saying lawmakers in his chamber were most heavily concerned about the college tuition aid program — and also the privatization deals for the LSU hospitals and clinics that provide safety net services for the poor.
Uncertainty about the financing for TOPS has caused angst among students and parents for months, and lawmakers say they have been inundated with concerns from their constituents. College students already on TOPS and high school students expecting to get the aid aren't sure how much they'll receive and now are having to work on contingency plans.
Henry said his committee, which will unveil its 2016-17 budget recommendations on Monday, intends to deepen proposed cuts across other state agencies, such as the health department, to protect TOPS.
"We're reallocating money across the state from all agencies and departments to make sure that TOPS is funded and other priorities are met," he said Thursday.
Barras was a bit more cautious: "We will get TOPS to a reasonable level, if not all the way there."
It wasn't yet clear where House lawmakers propose to cut in the health department or other agencies.
In Edwards' budget proposal, the Department of Health and Hospitals already was short the money needed to pay for safety net services for the poor. Safety net hospitals and clinics in Bogalusa, Lake Charles, Alexandria and Houma would be left without financing under the governor's plan, threatening them with closure.
Henry said his committee intends to rework the hospital and clinic cuts, to spread them out more across facilities, rather than favor some LSU hospital privatization deals over others. He said the Edwards administration has indicated it's working to renegotiate the hospital privatization contracts that cost $1.2 billion this year, to lower costs, and he believes that will help with budget balancing efforts.
Edwards was skeptical that TOPS could be fully financed with the amount of money available. Reshuffling money to protect TOPS would worsen the cuts to other areas across state government, he said Thursday.
"Do they want to leave other safety net hospitals out of the budget? Do they want to visit a larger cut to higher education, a larger cut to K-12 education? Do they want to further impair the corrections department's ability to house inmates?" the Democratic governor said.
Edwards wants lawmakers to return in June for a tax special session to help stave off budget cuts. Republican lawmakers in the House, including Henry, are resistant to that idea, saying they'd rather wait to see if collections from a round of more tax hikes passed in a special session earlier this year exceed the $1.2 billion projected for next year's budget.
Barras, too, said he's not sure that summer special session will be needed.
He said if lawmakers can find a way to avoid cuts to TOPS and the safety net hospitals, "it lessens the need for a June session in my opinion."