In fact, it is the most valuable program in our state government, offering scholarships to 51,000 students. The scholarship encourages many of our best and brightest students to stay in Louisiana for college, and, upon graduating, live in our state. It also offers many disadvantaged high school students an opportunity to continue their studies and pursue a college degree.
Without TOPS, many Louisiana high school seniors would not be able to attend college. Other top performing students would be lost to out of state colleges and universities offering more generous scholarships.
Sadly, yesterday, the Louisiana Legislature took the first step toward dismantling the TOPS program. Senate bill 174, sponsored by State Senator Jack Donahue (R-Mandeville) was passed in the House by a 74-21 vote. It already passed unanimously in the State Senate.
Starting in the 2017-2018 school year, the bill will freeze the amount of money which will be allocated to TOPS. Thus, as tuition increases in the future, TOPS will not cover rising costs. While additional allocations could be granted in the future by legislators, it is highly doubtful that will occur in a state continually beset with financial troubles.
As evidence let’s examine the current crisis. Facing a massive budget deficit this year, this legislature and Governor have targeted TOPS for massive cuts. In fact, to fund the upcoming school year, an additional $166 million will need to be allocated to the program. This could be accomplished by more tax hikes or spending cuts, otherwise the TOPS scholarship will only be offered to approximately one-third of the students currently on the program. Incredibly, the state faces this fiscal nightmare despite raising $2 billion in taxes in the past two legislative sessions.
The problem with Senate bill 174 is that it will lock in the tuition scholarship, while state colleges and universities will continue to raise tuition, forcing parents and students to pay the difference. While some will be able to afford the rising tuition costs, others will not and their children will be deprived of a college education. Other families will seek better deals in neighboring states offering more lucrative scholarships. Many of students will never return to Louisiana, thus depriving our state of a very valuable resource, our best and brightest young adults.
As a result of this bill and the cuts being proposed by Governor Edwards, our state colleges and universities will face declining enrollment, which will lead to higher tuition costs and more pain for the remaining families. This vicious cycle will eventually force the legislature to either revisit this legislation or dismantle TOPS completely.
The most serious problem with the legislation is that it reneges on a promise made to the high school students of Louisiana. For years, high school students have been told that if they worked hard and did well in school and on entrance exams, that a TOPS scholarship would cover the costs of tuition at an in-state college or university. Now, this legislation betrays that promise, guaranteeing that students and parents will face continually rising tuition costs.
Governor Edwards will sign this legislation, claiming that it is necessary to reign in the costs of the program. However, if the Governor and legislators were truly interested in reducing state government spending, they would target other areas besides TOPS.
For example, legislators should examine our bloated government and trim the number of state employees. Among all states, Louisiana has the sixth highest number of state and local government employees per capita. Our overall state spending per capita is third highest in the south.
As discussed often by State Treasurer John Kennedy, we have 19,000 state government contracts, many with out of state consultants, totaling over $12 billion in value. Thankfully, there is some legislation moving forward to trim the costs of these contracts, but it remains to be seen if it will pass both houses and be signed by the Governor.
It is also time to completely end state government funding of non-governmental organizations and wasteful expenditures such as $1 million for sculptures and artwork at the new University Medical Center in New Orleans.
TOPS works and should be retained in its present form. This bill will drastically alter the program and could destroy it eventually. A better approach to controlling spending would be to examine the myriad of other activities of state government that do not work. These are the areas that should be either trimmed or completely eliminated, not the one thing that state government is doing well.