- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Payments to Louisiana’s colleges from the TOPS free college tuition program were put on hold Thursday because of uncertainties about the state’s budget and questions about whether the popular program could be on the chopping block.

The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance, known as LOSFA, notified campuses that it was temporarily suspending TOPS payments.

The email, according to agency Executive Director Sujuan Boutté, read: “Due to the possibility of state budget cuts, all TOPS payments are being suspended immediately until further notice. More details will be provided as information becomes available.”

TOPS, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, provides free tuition to students who meet certain academic benchmarks. Campuses submit tuition bills to the student financial assistance office for reimbursement.

The program is highly popular across Louisiana, but its costs have mushroomed over the years to $265 million in this year’s budget. And that’s an estimated $28 million short of the financing needed to fully cover the tuition costs of the eligible students.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday night that the state likely won’t come up with the $28 million to fill the gap.

But he said he doesn’t believe students will end up owing part of this semester’s tuition payment they thought would be covered by the state. Instead, the Edwards administration said it expects colleges to take the cut in lost TOPS funds.

Boutté said her office decided all TOPS reimbursement payments to college campuses should be stalled for now, until the state’s financial picture becomes clearer.

“Since we are all waiting for information on the budget cuts and what impact they’re going to have, what we did is send a precautionary statement,” she said.

Louisiana has a budget gap ranging from $850 million to $950 million that must be closed by June 30. Edwards has called a special legislative session that begins Sunday to decide how to rebalance the $25 billion budget.

The Democratic governor wants tax increases, but Republican lawmakers who make up a majority of the Legislature have shown resistance to tax hikes and said they’d like to cut government spending.

Boutté said LOSFA has temporarily stalled TOPS payments to colleges each year as it waits to receive its full financing, so she said campuses are accustomed to some delays.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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