By: Pat Austin
SHREVEPORT – When news broke this past Thursday that John Bel Edwards had halted all payments to the enormously popular TOPS college scholarship program, you could feel the panic and desperation throughout the state. Thursday afternoon, February 11, word came down about the program via NOLA:
Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget chief, Jay Dardenne, said the state will have to leave TOPS approximately $28 million short of what it would take to fully fund the program through the end of the semester. He said all public universities will be informed that they would not receive all their TOPS payment this spring.
Dardenne added that TOPS could only be fully funded this year if the Legislature agreed to raise taxes a lot — over a half a billion dollars — in the next couple of months. Even then, the Edwards administration would likely prioritize filling a shortfall in the Medicaid program before the college scholarship program would receive the money it needs.
The TOPS program began in 1989 and, in brief, it pays college tuition to in-state universities for Louisiana students who score a certain percentage on the ACT and who maintain a certain GPA. The intent was to keep our kids here in the state. Through the years the requirements have been tweaked with the GPA requirement now at 2.5 and the ACT score now at 20. You can read more specifics here.
Now, there are a couple of things to look at in those two paragraphs from NOLA: first, Dardenne said basically that those students already enrolled in the spring semester are on the hook for the balance of the tuition they had been told would be paid through their scholarship. Literally what he said was that the colleges would “absorb” the cost of the unpaid balance. Recall that higher education throughout the state has already been decimated by Bobby Jindal and there is no room to “absorb” anything. Students across the state went to bed Thursday night anticipating bills for the balances to hit their mailboxes any moment.
The second thing to note from that NOLA quote is that Dardenne indicated that even if the money to fund TOPS was found, it would instead go toward funding Medicaid rather than satisfying the promised TOPS debt.
Further: Just a week before the TOPS blackmail, Edwards called for an emergency special session to deal with the state’s budget shortfall and noted that a plethora of tax increases are on the table, to include:
Income tax hikes
Cigarette tax hikes
Sales tax hikes on leased property and some services
Business utility tax hikes
Alcohol tax hikes
Taxes on AirBnB and anyone else who rents out a spare room
Taxes on the oil and gas industry
In essence, what John Bel Edwards has done is use emotional blackmail on the students and families of this state for the purpose of raising taxes on everything he possibly can. Families went to sleep Thursday night in serious distress over the financial future of their child’s college education. It’s not that these people don’t want to get student loans or work their way through college – most would have been more than willing to do so, but the TOPS program had been promised to them and they scheduled every high school course with the understanding of what was required of them to earn this scholarship. For the governor to threaten to pull the rug out from under their feet is unconscionable.
And so, the next day, word comes down that miraculously money has been found to fund TOPS through the rest of this spring semester, but next year? Not so much. Considerations to continue the program suggest a required ACT score of 28 to earn the scholarship and cutting the funding from $250 million to $60 million – about 80% of the current scholarships would be eliminated.
As if emotional blackmail of our students wasn’t enough, Governor Edwards addressed the state on television to explain the crisis and his actions and he said that student athletes are also in danger.
Yes, he poked the sacred cow of LSU football.
He really went there.
As I mentioned earlier, if the legislature fails to act and we are forced to proceed with these cuts, the LSU Ag Center and parish extension offices in every parish, and Pennington Biomedical Research Center will close by April 1st and the LSU main campus in Baton Rouge will run out of money after April 30th, as will the Health Sciences Center in Shreveport and LSU Eunice. There is no money left for payroll after those dates. The Southern University System, and University of Louisiana System, and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System are in the same boat: without legislators approving new revenue this special session, some campuses will be forced to declare financial bankruptcy, which would include massive layoffs and the cancellation of classes.
If you are a student attending one of these universities, it means that you will receive a grade of incomplete, many students will not be able to graduate and student athletes across the state at those schools will be ineligible to play next semester. That means you can say farewell to college football next fall.
The text of the speech can be found here.
You can only imagine the hysteria that caused. It seemed for a few moments there that we would totally implode. Never mind the kids’ scholarships! Never mind the cuts to the New Opportunity Waiver program which helps families with developmentally disabled children, we can’t survive without football!
At the very least this damages recruiting efforts. Who would want to sign with a university that may not have a program?
Edwards pushed every single button he could to incite fear and panic throughout the state. Yes, it’s a real problem. We are broke. But on the same day he also eliminated the work requirement from food stamps. Previously, recipients had to work twenty hours a week or be enrolled in a federally approved job training program. Not anymore.
And so it didn’t take long for the recall talk to start.
There is a Facebook group, Recall John Bel Edwards, which currently has about 5,500 members. There is a Change.org petition to recall the governor established solely for the purpose of monitoring numbers and interest in a formal recall; this petition has over 14,000 signatures so far. Over a million voters would have to sign a formal recall petition.
The bottom line is that the state is now in panic mode. Edwards said in his speech that these cuts “are not scare tactics. This is reality…” but people are scared. Everywhere I’ve been over the past few days, you hear subdued and worried conversations about the cuts. People are angry that entitlement programs are being expanded while education is being cut. People are angry at the emotional blackmail that if we don’t pressure our representatives to vote for the new taxes, everything will be cut. People are angry that there’s no talk of the billions in state contracts that will remain untouched.
State Treasurer John Kennedy gave the Republican response after Governor Edwards’s speech and he declared that we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. He rightly pointed out that these tax increases will wreck our fragile economy. Kennedy said he has sent over 400 ideas to the governor’s office to cut spending rather than raise taxes. In his speech, he listed six of those, which included auditing Medicaid fraud which currently exists to the tune of about $900 million dollars. He also suggested revising Medicaid so that patients stop going to the emergency room for things like acne or to see if they need glasses, or other such minor concerns that could be better handled in a doctor’s office. Kennedy also suggested cutting the statutory dedications and the 19,000 consultants currently on our payroll. He noted also that 22% of the managers in government manage only one person.
While everyone acknowledges that Jindal’s smoke and mirrors method of balancing the budget got us into this mess, nobody is willing to concede that sacrificing higher education and blackmailing our students and student athletes is a good plan. Neither is taxing everything. Republicans are going to be more willing to work with Edwards if he will at least consider cutting some of the entitlements and slashing some of the excessive spending in government.
These are dark days in Louisiana. The special session convened yesterday and we are waiting with high anxiety to see the outcome.
Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.