- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The final budget deal struck by Louisiana’s lawmakers took a lopsided approach to the TOPS program, giving college students full tuition funding for the fall semester and only 42 percent financing for the spring.

Gov. John Bel Edwards opposed the move pushed by House Republicans and could veto it, describing it as irresponsible policy. Higher education leaders were trying to determine Friday how it would work logistically and how the fallout of the first-ever budget cut to TOPS could impact campuses when it takes effect in the financial year that begins July 1.

LSU System President F. King Alexander said other schools around the Southeastern Conference were reaching out to LSU’s TOPS students, hoping to persuade them to switch schools.

“They’re taking advantage of the TOPS uncertainty of our state,” Alexander said. “They’ve got a full-court press on, and they’re aggressively seeking our best and brightest.”

Alexander won support from his system governing board to have more flexibility to give partial tuition and fee exemptions to students, to possibly address some of the TOPS cuts for needy or high-achieving students.

House leaders pushed for the front-loading of TOPS, saying they were hopeful the state could bring in more money than estimated from tax bills passed since March. If no new money arrives, House Appropriations Chairman Cameron Henry said the delay for the cut would give students and parents more time to ready for the reduction.

“The purpose of that is to give parents the opportunity to take out loans or do something else to prepare for that,” said Henry, R-Metairie.

Senate leaders suggested they didn’t support the approach but approved it as part of a budget compromise struck in the final hours of the special legislative session.

“If this helps us actually pass a budget and go home, I say we do it,” Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, said late Thursday as he urged support.

The final version of the budget - which includes cuts across a wide array of government programs - was passed less than an hour before the session had to end.

The nearly 20-year-old Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, much beloved among middle-class families, would cost about $294 million in the upcoming 2016-17 school year to fully cover tuition for the more than 50,000 eligible students. Lawmakers allocated about $88 million less than that, a 30 percent cut.

Democratic lawmakers opposed the approach taken to TOPS, saying cuts should be spread across both semesters, covering 70 percent of students’ tuition costs in both fall and spring.

“Nothing’s fully funded. Don’t try to cover it up with a little fluffy amendment, because that’s all this is,” said Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans. “It’s a joke.”

House Republicans also got language included in the budget bill that required TOPS to get one-third of any additional money if the state gets more dollars from the tax changes passed by lawmakers than projected.

Edwards, a Democrat, opposed both the front-loading of the TOPS payments and the contingency provision for any extra money that might show up. But he wouldn’t say in an early Friday morning news conference whether he’d strip the plans with his line-item veto. He said his office was “studying” the language.

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

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