- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Although House Education Committee members said they worry about the rising costs of the TOPS program, they refused a proposal Wednesday to rework the free college tuition program and shrink its price tag.

Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, was pushing a bill that would have raised eligibility standards for high school graduates to get a TOPS award and would have capped the amount of tuition covered through the program in future years.

It also would have required students to repay the state if they lose their TOPS awards within the first two years of college because they don’t maintain the required credit hour and grade point averages.

The program is estimated to cost the state $235 million next year and more than $300 million within three years. The bill was estimated to save the state $170 million in the 2017-18 budget year, when the largest provisions would kick in, and greater amounts in future years.

Four committee members supported the bill, while eight voted against it, killing it.

“It seems to me like what you’re trying to do, you’re going to lose an awful lot of kids,” said Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who opposed the bill. “I just don’t want to limit youngsters from having the opportunity.”

Proposals to tweak TOPS are considered long shots. The program is popular among Louisiana parents and middle-class voters, and it is credited with boosting college enrollment in a state struggling to improve its educational attainment levels.

Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes any efforts to cap TOPS or increase eligibility requirements.

But Carter said he doesn’t expect the defeat of Harrison’s bill to end discussions about TOPS for the session. House Speaker Chuck Kleckely, R-Lake Charles, is working on a proposal to change the program, and other measures have been filed for consideration.

“I do think that we’ll have an opportunity to review TOPS again,” Carter said.

Harrison has introduced his bill for several years but has failed to gain support.

“Within the next two to three years we will not be able to afford anyone in this program,” he said.

Several lawmakers said they were sympathetic to Harrison’s concerns about the program, formally called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

“We have to be fiscally conservative in realizing that if it breaks the bank, it’s not going to help the state,” said Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport.

But even some lawmakers who echoed Harrison’s worries about the long-term financial stability of TOPS refused to support the bill.

James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, for whom the TOPS program is named, opposed Harrison’s proposal.

He said TOPS students graduate at higher percentages than other college students. He also said the changes Harrison proposed would eliminate thousands from the program, disproportionately hitting low-income and minority students.

“The success of this program compared to the total number of dollars spent in education is tremendous,” Caillier said.

After the vote rejecting Harrison’s bill, lawmakers proposing other changes to the TOPS program pulled their bills from consideration.

Voting for Harrison’s bill were Carmody and Reps. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge; Jerome “Dee” Richard, I-Thibodaux; and Patricia Smith, D-New Orleans.

Voting against Harrison’s bill were Carter and Reps. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; Henry Burns, R-Haughton; Simone Champagne, R-Erath; Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer; Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette; Ed Price, D-Gonzales; and Gene Reynolds, D-Minden.



House Bill 385 can be found at www.legis.la.gov

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