Louisiana Suspends TOPS Program Immediately, Threatens College Closures if Budget Woes Continue
Gov. John Bel Edwards sounded major alarms regarding Louisiana's education system during a televised address to the state this evening (Feb. 11).
The most alarming news in his address is that Louisiana's economists are preparing for an even worse budget deficit than they thought. Two days ago, that deficit was estimated at $750 million for the current year and $1.9 billion for the next fiscal year starting June 1.
In his address tonight, Edwards said this year's deficit shot up to $950 million, and next year's has crossed the $2 billion mark. Primarily, collapsing oil prices have led to smaller-than-expected tax collections. The state's corporate tax incentives program is currently in a situation where the state is paying businesses more than we're collecting from them.
So what's the fallout? Immediately, the state's TOPS program (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) -- the popular scholarship program that gives in-state students a free education for meeting certain academic criteria -- has been halted. That means that students who haven't yet been processed for this spring semester are now dangling without a financial net.
Even worse is that Edwards said the entire state college system could close if legislators don't find a way to restore revenue to the state.
We will not be paralyzed in fear by the size of this challenge, nor would we falsely claim “the sky is falling,” but this is a historic fiscal crisis, the likes of which our state has never seen and absolute candor is required. -- Gov. Edwards
Legislators will meet in special session starting Sunday, Feb. 14 to begin work on righting the state's budgetary wrongs. Their hands will be tied by state laws, which protect almost all of the state's budget from cuts -- education and health care being the only departments unprotected.
Edwards is proposing a temporary sales tax hike to stabilize the state. He also intends to cut business subsidies and tax credits, enact a hiring freeze statewide and raid the state's Rainy Day Fund, among other ideas.
Whether or not a Republican-led legislature will support the Democratic governor's ideas remains to be seen. Below is State Treasurer John Kennedy's response.