BATON ROUGE — Parents and high school students who plan to rely on the state's free college tuition program face uncertainty as lawmakers debate measures aimed at keeping TOPS financially solvent.
Four bills that would have further regulated the program failed to gain approval Wednesday from the House Education Committee. Because the agenda was packed with other matters, lawmakers opted to delay considering the bills until April 9.
Lawmakers did get a preview of the debate. The committee delayed House Bill 385 by Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, who represents parts of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, only after it was vetted.
The bill would toughen eligibility standards for high school graduates to get scholarships through the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students and cap the tuition covered in future years.
Specifically, the award would be capped per student at $1,600 per semester. For residents of Louisiana, a full-time student pays $3,477 a semester at LSU and $2,839 at Nicholls State University.
It also would require 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.
Officials estimate the program will cost state taxpayers $235 million next year and more than $300 million within three years. Harrison's bill is 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.
"Changes will make the program more feasible for our state and let us keep the program around for future generations," Harrison said.
Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, agreed.
"We have to be fiscally conservative and realize if that if it breaks the bank, it is not going to help the state," Carmody said.
Harrison's bill would up the requirements to qualify for the award, raising the necessary ACT score from 20 to 22.
Opponents said imposing tougher standards would unfairly exclude students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, arguing that they don't have the resources to heavily prepare for standardized tests in the same way that more privileged students can.
"Raising the ACT requirement is going to have a disproportionate effect on the people I represent," said Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, "and whenever something has a disproportionate effect, it makes it difficult for me to support it."
Harrison argued that if elementary and secondary education standards are being subject to more rigor, so should TOPS awards.
Badon said Harrison was championing fiscal causes at the risk of the under-privileged. Badon suggested that Harrison raise the grade-point average requirement instead and pledged to work with Harrison if the bill were to reach the floor.
Harrison's 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.
Harrison called the legislation his "Lazarus bill" because he's brought it for consideration each session for the past five years.
While many acknowledge the program will eventually become too costly to sustain, lawmakers have been reluctant to impose limits on the program because of its popularity with constituents; it serves more than 47,000 students across the state.
The committee first voted to kill the bill but it was ultimately delayed instead along with several others affecting TOPS.