House committee restores TOPS funding at expense of health services

By Tryfon Boukouvidis, LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE – After a contentious debate, the House Appropriations Committee voted Monday almost along party lines to approve a state budget that would fully fund TOPS while slashing health services for the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

A set of amendments sponsored by the committee’s vice chairman, Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, would allocate $233 million to fund the popular TOPS scholarships and $13 million to fund Go Grant, a program that provides need-based financial aid.

“I want to send a message to our students who are making decisions now for college that it’s a priority for us to fully fund TOPS and Go Grants,” Foil said. 

The amendments passed 17-6, with all the Republicans except for Charles Chaney, R-Rayville, voting for them. The one political independent on the committee, Jerome Richard of Thibodeaux, voted with the Republicans. All five Democrats opposed the amendments.

The bill could be debated on the House floor as early as Thursday. It would restore some of the cuts made by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed doomsday budget, which was based in January on projections of a $994 budget gap in the fiscal year starting July 1.

The state’s Revenue Estimating Conference projected last week that recent federal tax changes would create a $346 million windfall in state revenue, lowering the gap to $648 million.

Edwards would rather see legislators raise more money to replace some of the temporary measures that are expiring and not rely as much on budget cuts.

In a statement Monday, Edwards, a Democrat, disparaged the committee’s proposal, saying it “is not worth the paper it’s printed on, and gives nothing but false hope to students and parents.”

Edwards’ commissioner of administration, Jay Dardenne, warned that the state will not have enough revenue to fully fund TOPS and the hospitals and other health programs. 

Democrats argued for allocating more funds to healthcare.

Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, questioned the Appropriations Committee’s priorities, noting that it would use $246 out of the $346 million in additional revenue to fund TOPS and Go Grants while maintaining $600 million in cuts to health programs.

The panel voted to use $58 million of the $346 million windfall to restore some of the proposed cuts in Medicaid. It also approved $2 million in additional funding for a public-private hospital partnership in Alexandria, where Rep. Lance Harris, who chairs the Republican legislative delegation, lives.

Leger said amendments similar to Foil’s had been debated and killed on the floor in the past.

Foil acknowledged that “we still have some other steps we will be going through.” The bill also will need to go through the Senate, which is generally more receptive to the governor’s views than the House is.

Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, pointed out that many of Foil’s constituents receive Medicaid and rely heavily on the partnerships with the hospitals, which are jeopardized under Foil’s amendment.

She told Foil that he was “willing to look at one segment of your district and not look at your district as a whole to ensure that some are going to be able to live and not die because we’re not funding the hospitals because you’re more willing to put this money to TOPS.”  Smith said most TOPS recipients have private insurance.

Foil responded that his amendment helps all of his constituents, as well as “all of your constituents.”

Leger, who is often the governor’s floor leader, told Foil the amendment “was never discussed with me by you or by the chairman, and you’re asking a committee that’s terribly stacked against people that are in my party to vote for an amendment where I’m supposed to say I either support funding TOPS or I don’t.”

“We’ve already been through a special session where if we wanted to send a message to the students of the state, we would have generated revenue sufficient to be able to do that, but we didn’t,” he added in frustration.

Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, argued that legislators should know that they are not going to be able to fully fund TOPS with the current projected revenue.

He said the bill also cuts $22 million in appropriations for  state universities, which means that students “could pay more out of their pockets.”

The committee rejected by 18-6 a set of amendments by Leger that would have restored full funding to higher education and provided about $213 million more to healthcare, including $74 million to funding for public-private partnership hospitals.

The amendments would have allocated $50 million, or around 20 percent of the amount needed to fully fund the program, to TOPS. 

The Appropriations Committee has spent the past five weeks hearing presentations by staff and department heads, as well as testimonies from agency officials.

The chairman, Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said he consulted with legislators to develop and amend his proposal. But some Democrats complained during the hearing that they were left out.