Editorial: Legislators: educating Louisiana’s youth is worth raising taxes



Gov. John Bel Edwards pauses before speaking at a press conference after the legislature adjourned sine die to end the special session to address the state’s fiscal crisis Monday, March 5, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. (Bill Feig/The Advocate via AP)

Nick Reimann

Here we go again — TOPS is in trouble.

The program finds itself teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff, after lawmakers failed to make any headway on closing a projected $700 million budget shortfall the state faces.

The failure came during a special legislative session — the fifth such in the last two years — where lawmakers in Baton Rouge and Gov. John Bel Edwards found no common ground when it came to the state budget.

What that means is that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students once again finds itself in peril with no guarantee it will be funded into the future, bringing into question the fates of over 50,000 college students — including many at Loyola — who rely on the thousands of dollars TOPS pays every semester as a financial aid supplement.

“It makes it more difficult for me and my parents to pay for things. In general it would suck. We don’t need TOPS to be taken away, just want the standards to receive them to be improved,” religious studies sophomore Joseph Stagni said.

We agree, Joseph, it would “suck.”

That’s why lawmakers need to stop hanging TOPS out as a bargaining chip for budget cuts and make sure the program gets the funding it needs for good.

But going into the next legislative session, TOPS finds itself squarely on the chopping block.

The worst-case scenario budget unveiled by Edwards in January showed an 80 percent cut in TOPS, and as each day passes without new legislation that would fund it, the governor’s scenario becomes more and more realistic.

There is one way to save it though, and that’s to raise revenue — aka taxes — as the governor told legislators they must be open to.

But there was no sign of budging from a large group of Republicans during the special session who blocked any attempt to increase state spending, calling the state budget bloated due to Edwards’ Democratic agenda.

One must ask whose interest these legislators are putting first by taking this stance.

Certainly not that of college students.

But what could be more important than the future of Louisiana? Some big business getting a tax break?

The right decision here is clear. If legislators really value the future of this state, they must be open to raising taxes to invest in that future. Then, they must make sure TOPS gets the stability it deserves.

For so many at Loyola and across Louisiana, the money received through the TOPS program is the difference between attending college and not. And while that’s the most important factor here, the good TOPS does for the state extends beyond just those who have financial need.

That’s because TOPS can serve as an incentive for the highest-performing students — students who would earn massive scholarships wherever they decide to go to school — to stay in the state and possibly pursue a career here. Cutting TOPS would be a cue for the best and brightest to look elsewhere.

Yes, by its nature the TOPS program is a social welfare entitlement program, but it’s one that’s popular and one that works, and it’s one legislators say they want to see continue.

Could it use reform? Possibly, but the same could be said for many programs where the state decides to spend its money. Despite the complicated mature of making a state budget, surely there are places where spending could be cut that don’t put students’ ability to go to college at risk.

So we call upon legislators — and we call upon all Louisianians to reach out to yours — to find a way for the program to continue. And the only way to do that is by raising the tax money necessary to replace the temporary tax measures that expired, prompting this crisis.

This is not an issue worth taking some principled anti-spending stance on. The futures of too many college students are at stake, something Loyola President Kevin Wildes realized when he testified before the Louisiana Senate Education Committee in 2016 regarding the TOPS program.

Legislators would be wise to heed his words.

“I urge you to continue to support TOPS as a very important program, not only for educating our young men and women, but for educating the Louisiana young men and women who will help to stay here and build a better state. That is what I think is so crucial to our future as a state,” he said.