Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday, March 18, 2016

Changes to TOPS?; Budget cuts coming; Blame Game and; Last on the list

Changes to TOPS?

This could be the year when legislators finally make changes to the generous Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarship program, where costs have been spiraling in recent years. The program was initially designed to help low income, high achieving students go to college. But as The Advocate’s Stephanie Grace explains, it looks a lot different today,.


TOPS started as a small, private program, financed by self-made businessman Pat Taylor and was designed to give high-achieving low-income students a shot at college.But it’s long since morphed into a taxpayer-funded entitlement available to average students, regardless of family income — one that often benefits middle-class or well-off kids and that has gotten far more expensive as direct state funding to colleges has dropped and tuition bills, which TOPS fully covers, have risen. TOPS has cost more than $2 billion since its inception, with no end in sight and no mechanism to control costs, even as the state grapples with a record budget shortfall. Eighteen bills aimed at placing limits on TOPS, some of them overlapping, have been filed. The array of options includes raising academic standards, freezing scholarship levels, subtracting available need-based aid, requiring those who don’t keep up their grades or stay in Louisiana after graduation to repay the state, no longer providing scholarships for cosmetology and proprietary schools, and limiting them to majors that would qualify graduates for target jobs. Some proposals wouldn’t kick in until today’s high school students are already in college, and others would start sooner.


Budget cuts coming

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne will announce cuts to the budget next week, with the brunt likely to fall on healthcare and higher education. If colleges get hit, it would come on top of $28 million they already had to absorb because of TOPS payments that weren’t funded.  Gordon Brillion of the Baton Rouge Business report has the story.


Louisiana Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget today he will be “cognizant” of the impact a $28 million cut to the TOPS scholarship program will have on higher education institutions as his office tries to allocate $70 million in budget cuts during the next week. Dardenne said higher education, the Department of Health and Hospitals and private contracts will be the main targets of the cuts, but his comments today suggest higher education will avoid the most severe reductions…He also said he would take that budget hit into account as his department plans how much to cut from each area. His office will take a look at other departments for potential cuts, but warned it’s unlikely to find anything. “We believe we’ve pretty much maxed them out,” Dardenne said. “We’ll take a look at other areas, but we didn’t go there (to higher education, DHH and private contracts) earlier, so that’s where they will be.”


Blame game

A UNO Survey Research Center poll found that found that more than 50 percent of voters blame former Governor Bobby Jindal for the state’s budget crisis while 25 percent blame the Legislature. Young people were more likely to be angry with Jindal, and one in five older folks said other factors were to blame outside of the governor and legislature. Kevin Litten of the Times Picayune has more.


The respondents also viewed Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards more favorably than the Republican-controlled Legislature. In the poll, Edwards had a tepid 43 percent favorability rating while 34 percent saw him unfavorably. The Legislature’s rating, meanwhile, was 53 percent unfavorable while just 15 percent see the body as favorable,  resulting in a 38-point negative rating. UNO reported that one-third of the people who responded to the poll either didn’t know or declined to answer the question. Pollsters also asked respondents how much the budget situation affected their favorable or unfavorable views of Edwards and the Legislature. “For instance, respondents who answered affirmatively to the question of whether there was a budget crisis tended to give the benefit of the doubt to Edwards and were more likely to rate him favorably,” the UNO poll found. “Not so with the Legislature. A majority of people who believed there was a budget crisis expressed an unfavorable opinion of the institution.”


Last on the list

The first edition of the “Just South” index is out from Loyola University – New Orleans, and Louisiana didn’t do well. The report measures social justice and ranks Louisiana dead last when it comes to poverty, racial disparity and exclusion. Danielle Dreilinger of Times-Picayune says that means low-income families, immigrants and workers of color are worse off in Louisiana than anywhere else in the nation. Here are some of the findings:


The average low-income household earned only $11,156 in 2014. The institute calculates that a two-person family needs to earn “$45,840 a year to afford basic necessities,”; Almost all low-income households spent more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent; Minority workers earned, on average, four fifths what their white peers made; One third of poor families lacked health insurance; Just 59 percent of immigrants in Louisiana had health insurance, and it could not all be explained by immigration status.


Number of the Day

90.6 – The percentage of poor households in Louisiana who spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent. (Source: Jesuit Social Research Institute via Times Picayune)