House committee votes to fully fund TOPS, give AG more power

House committee votes to fully fund TOPS, give A.G. more power

BATON ROUGE, LA (WVUE) - A state house committee led by Republican State Rep. Cameron Henry voted Monday to fully fund the popular TOPS college scholarship program at the expense of some other state services.

On UNO's campus it is the end of the spring semester, but students still voice concerns about the future of TOPS.

"That's the only way I can go to school," said student Lauren Burgess.

Miles away in Baton Rouge, Gov. John Bel Edwards spent part of the day addressing the Press Club about the ongoing money woes in state government.

"From my perspective it is not possible to adequately fund what we all believe to be priorities in this state," said the governor.

As Edwards was before members of the media at the Press Club even, the House Appropriations Committee was taking up budget issues as previously scheduled.

The budget Edwards has put forth for the 2016-2017 budget year contains millions in cuts, including to the TOPS Program and K-12 public education because of a $600 million money shortage.

Edwards also plans to call state lawmakers into a second special session of the year in June after the regular legislative session concludes in order to work on the seemingly chronic fiscal problems. Many Republican legislators oppose another special session so soon.

Given that, the House Appropriations Committee with several Republican lawmakers as members passed HB1, the operating budget for state government. It emerged from the committee in a much different fashion than what the governor proposed.

As amended, HB1 now fully funds the nearly $300 million TOPS Program. The budget the governor proposed leaves TOPS $183 million short.

"What House Bill 1 will do among other things is it fully funds TOPS because there's the least amount of flexibility in that with roughly...45,000 high school students graduating," said Rep. Henry, R-Metairie.

"You go to higher ed and DHH to get the money, and if it's a six percent, in addition to what we already did, I don't know how I can support that, but I want to see the dollar amounts," said the governor.

At UNO there are about 1,400 undergraduate students on TOPS.

"My family can't afford to send me to college. I can't work and already have to take out loans even with TOPS," said Burgess.

To make up the shortfall in TOPS funding, the committee approved amendments to the budget that spreads funding cuts to all nine state safety net hospitals and eliminates funds for the state inspector general.

"I don't think that's the correct place to take the money from, no," said Burgess of the cuts to hospitals.

The governor was also asked to weigh in on the elimination of funds for the IG.

"I believe that that's a mistake. I believe that the people of Louisiana expect that there's a full-time agency out there that's watching what state government does," he said.

Earlier in the day the same house committee voted to remove the state attorney general's budget from the state general fund budget that funds state agencies. It was a move Democrats on the committee balked at, saying it does not line up with the state constitution.

"What makes you think we can't?" Henry asked House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

Leger answered, "A provision in the constitution that says that there shall be one executive budget. It's kind of like the Highlander, there shall only be one."

"Well, now there shall be two," Henry responded.

"I don't know if that will survive the entire house, but I think for both legal and policy reasons it should not," said the governor.

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