Effort to rein in cost of TOPS fails in House committee

Legislation that would rein in the runaway cost of the state’s popular college scholarship program — TOPS — died in the House Education Committee on Wednesday.

The death of House Bill 385 also triggered a domino effect in which one legislator after another approached the microphone and pulled his or her TOPS-related bills from consideration.

This could mean what it always meant: The Legislature has no appetite to fiddle with the widely popular program, even if most agree it’s a drain on the state’s finances.

On the other hand, it could signify a temporary setback among lawmakers who are adamant that 2014 is the year they overhaul TOPS.

Louisiana House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, a Lake Charles Republican, said he is working on a TOPS bill that would make the program more sustainable without hurting the state’s children. “I’m comfortable that we’ll come up with a plan that will get the support that’s needed,” Kleckley said.

Kleckley said something similar prior to the start of last year’s legislative session when he told a roomful of reporters that 2013 was the year the Legislature would likely revamp TOPS. A few weeks later, Kleckley backtracked after hearing that Gov. Bobby Jindal was opposed to any major changes.

The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students pays tuition and some fees for students who meet and maintain certain academic requirements.

The program has become a sacred cow for some voters as it has grown from 18,000 students in 1998 to more than 45,000 last year.

In total, TOPS has paid for more than 620,000 Louisiana high school students to attend in-state colleges and universities. But as its popularity grew, so did its costs.

The price tag for TOPS has risen from about $40 million in the late 1990s to $217 million this year. Some estimates have the program growing to more than $300 million by 2016.

Over the past several years, a number of legislators have taken the politically risky step of introducing legislation attempting to slow down the program’s rapidly rising costs. All of those attempts have failed.

This year doesn’t appear to be any different. State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, has been trying to put limits on TOPS for the past five years. This year, he introduced HB385. The bill would increase the minimum ACT score needed for TOPS eligibility from 20 to 22 out of a possible 36.

The bill would also cap the amount of money TOPS pays out to each student at $1,600 per semester and require that students who lose TOPS because of poor performance, be required to pay the money back to the state.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor reported that nearly half of the college students awarded TOPS scholarships between 2002 and 2008 lost their award, costing the state about $165 million.

Students can lose their awards for poor grades, failing to take the required number of credits per semester and for not maintaining continuous full-time enrollment.

Throughout Wednesday’s hearing, Harrison pleaded with his colleagues to vote for the bill and allow it to advance to the full House of Representatives for debate.

“Within the next two to three years we will not be able to afford this program,” Harrison said. “If we would’ve done this five years ago, we would have saved over $100 million. We need to at least make the effort.”

Harrison was able to cobble together some support from his colleagues when he framed the argument as a way to get some money back from students who don’t take college seriously and end up losing their scholarship due to poor performance.

He ran into trouble when several legislators objected to raising the academic standards. State Rep. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, argued that tougher academic standards would penalize students who work hard but have trouble meeting the scholarship’s requirements.

Harrison responded that the trend in the state’s K-12 system is to gradually increase classroom rigor as a way to boost achievement and make students more competitive nationwide.

“How come we are pushing rigor in K-12 but it’s not OK for TOPS when we’re losing $18 million a year” he said. “We’ve got to push our kids ... right now we’re letting them slack.”

But James Caillier, vice president of external affairs for the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation — the organization TOPS is named after — argued that TOPS increases achievement by giving junior high and high school students a goal.

He added that raising the ACT requirement to 22 would eliminate 17,000 students in Louisiana, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds.

“There is a direct correlation between income and performance,” Caillier said. “What are we trying to do, make this a program for the rich?”

Shortly after the back-and-forth, committee members killed HB385 on an 8-4 vote.

The bill proved to be a litmus test as legislators offering four other bills that would rein in TOPS, voluntarily removed their bills from consideration.