Special session to tackle TOPS scholarship program funding

Lawmakers debate $1 billion budget crisis

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - The hype is over after Monday's kickoff of the special session in Baton Rouge. Now comes the heavy lifting for state lawmakers to avoid the so-called 'fiscal cliff' facing Louisiana with its $1 billion shortfall.

That heavy lifting includes difficult budget decisions on the way on everything from taxes to spending cuts. One of the most contentious issues is how to handle the TOPS program.

That's the four letter acronym given to the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. It has been offering scholarships for college tuition, including 100 percent for those who qualify since 1998.

Once again, the budget deficit jeopardizes TOPS. But over the years the popular scholarship program has transformed into a third rail of Louisiana politics; an old railroad metaphor that basically means it's untouchable.

"It is become a sacred cow. But, it gets used, politically used. It's like a hatchet," said Mike Collier, the Bossier Republican Executive Chairman

Some argue that you need look no further for an example of TOPS being used a political tool than Governor John Bel Edwards' initial budget proposal. It called for an 80 percent cut to TOPS.

"You put a headline on that paper that says TOPS is going to zero, there's some torches and chains headed for the courthouse," added Collier.

That may help explain why Governor Edwards told lawmakers he wants TOPS fully funded this year, during his opening remarks of the special session on Monday.

Edwards said to the assembly "For many students that is the difference between staying in Louisiana or leaving."

We met several LSU Shreveport students who agree with the importance of TOPS to keep them here, like Prometheus June.

"If it was not for TOPS and financial aid I would not be able to go here," said June.

He's just one of nearly 49-thousand Louisiana students who received TOPS scholarships during the fall semester.

And fellow LSUS student Shandrea Lyons told us, "If TOPS were cut it would be pretty drastic for me personally simply because I work two jobs and I use TOPS to go to school."

Many predict any final budget deal will likely be a piecemeal effort, combining budget cuts and tax increases.

And the session is no inexpensive endeavor when you consider it costs Louisiana taxpayers about $60,000 for each day of the special session. Over 17 days that will come to just over $1,000,000.

That's why there's widespread hope that the session will be worth the time and the expense when it ends no later than Wednesday, March 7.

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