- Associated Press - Friday, June 19, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana’s TOPS free college tuition program won’t face new spending restrictions, after Gov. Bobby Jindal on Friday vetoed a bill that sought to curb the ballooning costs of the program.

The measure by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, was aimed at providing more certainty for the state budget. But Jindal said placing cost controls on the program would have broken the state’s promise to students and their families.

Under the bill, the TOPS tuition payment rate would have been locked in at the 2015-16 level. Rather than automatic increases whenever tuition costs rise, increases to TOPS payments in later years would have needed separate legislative approval.

Supporters said that would ensure Louisiana can continue to afford the program, expected to cost $265 million in the upcoming budget year and projected to continue growing in price tag.

Jindal objected because students and parents could have to pay more out of pocket for tuition. He credited TOPS with sending more students to college, better preparing high school students to attend college and improving campus graduation rates.

“I made a promise to the students and families of this state that a TOPS scholarship would be available to every child who worked hard and met the performance criteria established by law - this legislation would renege on that promise,” the Republican governor said in his veto.

The TOPS measure was one of several bills Jindal struck down Friday.

To get the basic TOPS scholarship that covers all tuition costs at a public college in Louisiana, a graduating high school student must have a 2.5 GPA on core curriculum and a 20 ACT score. The program is expected to cover more than 55,000 students’ tuition next year.

Also vetoed were bills that would have:

-Boosted pension checks for retired state employees and retired teachers. The 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment in the bill by Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, would have given retirees an average $30 monthly pension increase. Jindal noted that national credit rating agencies, which have been closely monitoring state finances, have raised concerns about the retirement systems’ debt.

Jones said he wasn’t surprised by the veto: “The burning hatred that (Jindal) has for public employees is just astounding to me, and I feel sorry for the 135,000 retired employees.”

-Put new restrictions on state agencies’ ability to privatize services. The measure by Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, would have required the agency to meet certain hurdles before entering privatization contracts that cost $5 million or more annually and called for the legislative auditor to review each contract. Jindal described it as a “broad-reaching expansion of bureaucratic government” that would discourage “private sector partnerships.”

Havard said the legislation would have provided more transparency in state government and saved money for taxpayers: “We still have two or three folks sitting in smoky back rooms handing out billions of dollars’ worth of contracts with no oversight.”

-Provided a method for collecting state sales tax from online retailers. Supporters of the bill by Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said it calls for all companies that do business in the state to be treated the same in tax charges and collection. Jindal said until Congress establishes “a uniform law on how states should handle companies that have no physical presence within their borders,” the bill threatens to expose Louisiana to costly lawsuits.

In addition, the governor jettisoned bills to expand eligibility for participation in special court intervention programs for veterans, and to allow some people convicted of violent crimes to have those convictions permanently expunged from their records.

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Online:

Senate Bill 48 and House Bills 42, 137, 555: www.legis.la.gov

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