JR Ball: The ‘T’ in TOPS stands for Texas

If there’s one thing Louisiana excels at, says JR Ball in his latest column, it’s this: Throwing money, tax breaks and a top-rated workforce training program at out-of-state companies in the desperate attempt to lure some “game changer” to the state.

“We do this not only because every other state in the union does it, but also because making it rain with Benjamins might, just might, blind these site-selecting folks to our failing schools, crumbling roads and so-so universities—not to mention our under-educated and generally unhealthy population,” Ball writes. “Oh, and let’s not forget a business tax code more befuddling than LSU’s offense.”

Free market proponents rarely—if ever—object to this method of attracting business, “opting instead to ardently embrace the flag of contradiction,” he says.

“That said, what’s the deal with this state and its taxpayers so gleefully, willingly and unapologetically financing workforce development for Texas?” Ball asks. “I’m talking, of course, about the Texas … err … Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, which has been using taxpayers to underwrite student tuition since 1998.”

Under its current incarnation, TOPS functions as a financial carrot dangled to draw Louisiana’s best and brightest high school graduates to in-state universities, Ball says. And, to some degree, he acknowledges it has worked, especially at LSU. The program also gets credit for boosting high school performance and college graduation rates.

“What TOPS doesn’t do is keep those bright minds—freshly educated by LSU and other in-state universities—from grabbing their degrees and heading for the border … most often to Texas for a higher-pay job and a better way of life,” Ball writes. “In sporting parlance, Louisiana colleges have become a Triple-A farm club for Texas companies.”

Equally problematic, Ball says, is the rising cost of the scholarship program, which covers up to eight semesters of tuition and has shot up to an estimated $291 million this school year. More students are reaching the eligibility standard—nearly 52,000 this academic year, up from 23,600 when the program began—and tuition on college campuses is escalating to offset state direct aid funding cuts, he says.

And though TOPS gets a small portion of its money from a dedicated tobacco settlement, more than three-quarters of the cash that pays for the scholarship comes from general state tax dollars, Ball notes.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to find the taxpayer dollars to pay for the program and attempts to rein in the costs have been ill-fated.

“Regardless, the more appropriate question in these times of troubled fiscal waters is this: Should taxpayers be doling out largesse to students who bolt the state the minute their subsidized education is complete?” Ball writes. “Who cares if our kinda-best and sorta-brightest get a college degree in Louisiana if their employment eyes are upon Texas?”

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