JR Ball: The TOPS of Louisiana’s political pyramid

    JR Ball

    TOPS is the most important entitlement program in Louisiana. We know this because every year when Gov. John Bel Edwards and state House Republicans square off for a political game of budgetary chess the first pawn both sides threaten to sacrifice is the program that pays a huge chunk of the tuition bill for any mediocre-and-above high school graduate attending an in-state college or university.

    Officially known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, the program has over its 30 years of life 1) improved high school performance and college graduation rates, 2) become wildly popular—especially for middle-class families—and 3) grown incredibly expensive, thanks to the actions of a past governor and state legislators.

    Being this is Louisiana—a state suffering from both the “natural resource curse” as well as a size-of-government tug-of-war between its populist, share the wealth past and its conservative, let me keep my wealth present—few seem concerned about the academic good TOPS is doing.

    Instead it’s the last part—the escalating cost—that has Edwards and state lawmakers constantly threatening to revamp one of the few things people across Louisiana actually appreciate about state government. The taxpayer cost for TOPS has skyrocketed thanks largely to the actions of former Gov. Bobby Jindal and lapdog legislators, who shifted higher education funding from a direct subsidy model to one dependent upon tuition increases. Given the move to something of a “user fee” model, the state’s TOPS bill is expected to hit $291 million this school year.

    Which bring us to the public’s love affair with TOPS. It’s a government entitlement program everyone—rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat—seemingly can get behind. It’s the chicken no one wants removed from the gumbo pot of largesse.

    And that’s precisely the reason why both Edwards and House Republicans—like an alarm clock singing its song every morning at 6 a.m.—sound off year after year after year that funding for TOPS is in jeopardy unless one side bows to the fiscal will of the other. Put simply, both sides, unwilling to compromise, threaten the life of something we all like in the ongoing fight to sway public opinion over taxes, the size of government and what services are worthy of taxpayer funding.

    It’s a game of chicken that began the day Edwards—who as a candidate for governor and state legislator vowed to both fully fund TOPS as well as expand the needs-based Go Grant program—took office, declaring all TOPS bets were off with oil dropping below $30 per barrel, making a bad budget situation far worse than ever imagined.

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    Fast-forward three years and even with more than $1 billion in new taxes and the price of oil more than doubling—threatening to hit $70—the funding fate of TOPS is still in jeopardy with the state facing a “fiscal cliff” of some $1 billion thanks to the expiration of temporary sales taxes approved to avoid an earlier “fiscal cliff.”

    No doubt, Republicans love to hold TOPS hostage as well, actually refusing to fully fund the scholarship program during the last school year.

    And so it goes…

    Just last week, Edwards—asked about a group of lawmakers gathering to seek ways to get the cost of TOPS under control—said, “I would prefer to keep TOPS as is. I don’t favor changing TOPS; I favor funding TOPS.”

    Of course he does.

    Which explains the quick back-tracking, with the governor admitting paying for TOPS may be “hard to do” if the state’s budget woes continue, adding he’s open for discussions on adjusting the program.

    It’s a repeating cycle that reminds me of the movie “Groundhog Day,” where Phil the weatherman finds himself trapped in a time warp, doomed to relive the same day over and over. Maybe one day, like Phil, our elected officials will get it right, agree to long-term fiscal solutions and end our repeating state nightmare.

    Until then…

    They say our love won’t pay the rent

    Before it’s earned, our money’s all been spent

    I guess that’s so, we don’t have a plot

    But at least I’m sure of all the things we got …