TOPS among dedicated funds protected by state committee

Cropped Photo: Pictures of Money / CC BY 2.0 / MGN

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A state committee tasked with reviewing dedicated funds chose to protect a significant portion of money that helps provide TOPS assistance for Louisiana students Wednesday, Feb. 20.

The money comes from tobacco settlements and is constitutionally dedicated to the TOPS fund, meaning lawmakers cannot shift the money to other services or programs. The settlement money funds around 20 percent of TOPS, which costs nearly $300 million each year and provides tuition assistance to nearly 50,000 Louisiana students.

The committee could have recommended legislation that would have diverted the settlement to the state general fund, but instead chose to retain the constitutional dedication with little discussion and no debate.

“I think there’s been a commitment from legislators on both sides of the aisle to prioritize TOPS and higher education funding, so I would not expect any surprises coming from the budget or the legislature this session,” said Louisiana Budget Project Public Affairs Coordinator Davante Lewis.

For the first time in almost a decade, TOPS is not expected to be on the chopping block during the next legislative session. Last summer, lawmakers passed a tax compromise that stabilized the state’s budget until 2025.

On Friday, Governor John Bel Edwards will present his first executive budget, which is still being finalized, but is not expected to include cuts to higher education.

Louisiana has around 400 dedicated funds that account for almost $7 billion in the state budget, according to Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell. Hewitt chairs the committee, which is reviewing each fund to see if there are any that should be “un-dedicated.”

“If you don’t look under the hood, you don’t really know where your money is going," Hewitt said. “When you have so many things hardwired in the state law or constitution, it makes it very difficult to manage the budget.”

The committee made a number of recommendations Wednesday, including to eliminate a constitutional dedication for seafood marketing that had not been used since its creation in 2004. That fund was among a handful of dedications recommended for elimination that have had no money deposited or withdrawn in their lifespans.

Some lawmaker will have to bring legislation to eliminate those funds, and the departments that oversee those dedications will have an opportunity to sign off on the elimination or fight for their survival. It’s unclear who will carry those bills, as lawmakers are limited to five bills unrelated to fiscal law in odd-numbered years.

Session begins Apr. 8.

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