To Save TOPS From Financial Bankruptcy, LA Republicans Declare Moral Bankruptcy

“Don’t tell me what you value,” Vice President Joe Biden often says. “Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” It’s Biden’s riff on the adage that “budgets are moral documents,” which is often attributed to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday, Louisiana House Republicans, led by State Rep. Cameron Henry, made their values clear: Saving a college scholarship entitlement program that disproportionally “benefits students from white, affluent families” is more important than saving the lives of poor people who rely on the state’s public safety-net hospitals. Henry seeks to close a $182.5 million shortfall for the scholarship entitlement program by, among other things, cutting funding for nine different hospitals, jeopardizing their ability to simply keep their doors open.

Gov. John Bel Edwards had hoped to protect funding for five of the nine hospitals immediately and ensure funding for the remaining four hospitals during an anticipated second special session. Henry, instead, wants to slash funding for all nine hospitals. According to Julia O’Donoghue of The Times-Picayune, Henry believes that the “Edwards’ administration placed too much emphasis on funding health care at the expense of higher education,” a critique Henry could legitimately make if he hadn’t spent the last eight years voting to decimate higher education at every opportunity.

It is unlikely that Henry’s proposal, which won approval from the House Appropriations Committee, will win ultimate passage, but it is a telling example of the ways in which Louisiana’s Republican leadership in the House continues to fail the most vulnerable people in the second-poorest state in the nation. Nearly 20% of Louisiana citizens live in poverty; among African-Americans, the poverty rate is over 33%.

“The House budget redirects money from safety-net hospitals that serve the most vulnerable to prop up an entitlement program that disproportionately serves children from well-to-do families who can afford the cost of college,” Jan Moller, executive director of the nonpartisan Louisiana Budget Project, tells me. “While it would be nice to fully fund both TOPS and Medicaid, the Legislature’s refusal to raise sufficient revenue means tough tradeoffs are necessary. In this case, the money should go to those who need it the most.”

When it was initially conceived and launched, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (or TOPS) represented an innovative and progressive plan to ensure the sustainability and viability of Louisiana’s higher education system and its workforce. The idea is simple: If you do well enough in high school, you’re guaranteed a college education here in Louisiana. And for a long time, TOPS worked as intended.

The program is still wildly popular. More than 51,000 students receive some type of TOPS scholarship. But former Gov. Bobby Jindal, along with a pliant state legislature dominated by like-minded Republicans, including Cameron Henry, spent the last eight years operating under the misguided belief that they could cut their way into prosperity.

“When Gov. Bobby Jindal took office eight years ago, state taxpayers provided 60 percent of the funding for Louisiana’s public universities,” Gordon Russell of The Advocate reported in January. “Now, taxpayers put up barely a quarter of the tab, leaving students and their families to cover most of the gap in the form of rising tuition and fees.”  For the state’s flagship university, LSU, the cuts were even more extreme; whereas the state once provided more than 70% of funding, today, it provides less than 15%.

All told, Jindal slashed funding for higher education by 55%, more than any other state in the country. Educational performance lagged. Louisiana is currently ranked 48th in the percentage of citizens who have attained a college degree.

Because of Jindal’s massive cuts to higher education, colleges and universities were forced to dramatically increase tuition and fees. That, in effect, made students increasingly reliant on TOPS and made TOPS even more expensive for the state. Until only today, TOPS had a “guaranteed link between tuition and award amounts,” reports Elizabeth Crisp and Will Sentell of The Advocate. “TOPS scholarships, which are offered as an incentive for Louisiana high schoolers who meet certain academic benchmarks, have traditionally matched tuition rates — even as colleges hiked the cost of attendance. That led to ballooning costs for the program in recent years. In the coming year, full funding of TOPS would be nearly $300 million.”

In other words, the only reason TOPS is currently unsustainable is because people like Cameron Henry spent the last eight years championing massive disinvestments in higher education, all in a mad and dishonest scramble to prop up a failed theory of governance and avoid an unmistakable reality. By cutting taxes by nearly a $1 billion a year and giving away vast fortunes of the public’s treasury to private businesses, not only did they have nothing to show for, they were all but guaranteeing a failed state.

State Rep. Henry and many of his colleagues appear to still be suffering from denial. Make no mistake: Fully funding TOPS isn’t their number one priority because it’s the most critically endangered program in Louisiana. Right now, due to a lack of funding, foster children sleep on the floors of local offices of the Department of Children and Family Services. It’s their number one priority because the vast majority of those affected by cuts to the program are white kids from middle-class and upper-class families, families that are more likely to vote Republican, more likely to donate to Republican campaigns, and more capable of influencing public opinion.

Instead of even entertaining the prospect of targeted and responsible tax increases in order to solve a problem they created, Rep. Henry and his colleagues would rather defund health care for poor people. Because, to them, that is nothing more than an entitlement program. The $300 million a year that we spend to subsidize college tuition for predominately white kids (75%) from predominately affluent families (58%), well, that’s a scholarship!

Don’t get me wrong: I think TOPS, at its best, is still capable of transforming Louisiana’s higher education system and empowering our next generation with the skills and the knowledge necessary to compete and thrive. But right now, because of the nature in which budget frequently creates a zero sum game between health care and education and because of the massive deficit bequeathed to us by Gov. Bobby Jindal and Republican leaders in the legislature, we should recognize that a college scholarship entitlement program isn’t a necessity; it’s a luxury. Hospitals that serve the poor, however, are often the difference between life and death.