BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal’s push to dedicate a stream of tobacco settlement funding to help cover costs for the state’s free college tuition program known as TOPS won approval Monday from the Senate Finance Committee, despite complaints the measure would strip future dollars for health services.
The 6-2 vote sends the measure (Senate Bill 53) to the full Senate for debate. If approved by the full House and Senate in a two-thirds vote, the constitutional amendment also would require approval from voters in the fall election.
The bill by Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, would take a slice of tobacco settlement money received after April 2011, dollars that are currently set to be divided between health care and education trust funds, and dedicate that money to the TOPS program.
That would give TOPS — the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students — $92 million in the upcoming fiscal year, about an increase of $45 million in dedicated funds, supporters said, and it would grow even larger in later years.
Supporters said that would give more stability to the TOPS program by providing it with a partial source of funding.
“It’s necessary to provide some long-term, base level funding for it to make sure those students who have earned those scholarships get them,” Alario said.
The measure wouldn’t provide full funding for TOPS, which would cost an estimated $174 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year if all proposed tuition increases pending in the Legislature are approved. The governor assumes the constitutional amendment would pass in his budget recommendations and uses the money to fund TOPS.
Two senators on the committee complained the governor’s contingency was improper and could leave TOPS at risk or would require lawmakers to make cuts elsewhere to pay for TOPS if the constitutional change isn’t approved.
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, one of the opponents, also said it would divert future dollars that would go to health care programs and charter schools.