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Another View: Donahue on target with TOPS pitch PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, June 03 2014 - 11:53 am



Procrastination is a human trait, and it is perhaps most pronounced in the herd of humans in the Louisiana Legislature.

The issue is the popular TOPS scholarships, and the struggle with making it somewhat less generous so that it is affordable in the future.

In concept, something like the bill to increase TOPS requirements will pass one day, simply because TOPS is a large and unaffordable drain on the state’s general fund. But human nature being what it is, and politics being what it is, the herd has simply not worked up the courage to cut costs.

Leaders in both House and Senate are aware of the problem, and bills by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, and Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville — the latter head of the Finance Committee — have filed some reasonable solutions.

I think we will allow students to have a higher goal to shoot for,” Donahue argued. “Quite a few of them would raise their standards.”

But even given the influence of Donahue in the Senate — indeed, he is a respected member — his bill to raise TOPS requirements modestly was defeated 23-16. Now, that’s a pretty solid vote but it’s not a monolithic majority.

The debate surely presages some changes in future. “The challenge is, how do you put a handle on this?” asked Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell. In fact, there are a number of ways to cut costs and still provide the benefits of what is now known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.

We liked Donahue’s proposal to raise the academic requirements modestly so that TOPS is really a scholarship, and we suspect that the state will have to go in that direction.

How do you put a handle on this? By taking even a glance at the numbers.

TOPS will cost the state an estimated $250 million next year and $387 million by the 2018-19 school year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. That’s up from about $40 million in the late 1990s.

A report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office last year showed that 44 percent of students lost their TOPS awards between 2002 and 2008, and more than half of those lost the scholarship during the first year of college.

We commend Donahue and others for pushing reforms in the program, and we hope to see its benefits continued, but on a more financially sustainable basis.

Procrastination can’t last forever on a price tag that is going higher every year.


Legislature must alter Tulane scholarship program PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, May 21 2014 - 11:49 am

By: Houma Today

The Louisiana Legislature has a deal with Tulane University in New Orleans that dates back more than a century.

It has never served a true public purpose. Instead, it has served the narrow political interests of the lawmakers themselves.

The stated purpose of the scholarship program, which allows each legislator to award one full scholarship to Tulane each year, is to make sure students from throughout Louisiana get the chance to attend the prestigious university.

That purpose could much more easily be served if the university or some third party were in charge of publicizing the program and selecting deserving students to participate.

By allowing the process to be overseen by the legislators themselves, the program has rewarded them with a valuable prize that all too often has been bestowed on political supporters or other well-connected families.

Under Senate Bill 1, the program will undergo some modest changes that could result in more applicants.

However, it leaves the program in the hands of the legislators who will still be free to reward their allies with scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars a year.

It is difficult to see the public purpose in allowing legislators control over this valuable program.

Instead, the university — which is in the best position to decide which students need and deserve financial assistance — should do it.

Unfortunately, the lawmakers don't want to part with what has become a valuable political perk.

Some lawmakers, though, have set a great example, the kind of thing that should be a model for how the program is to work if it is retained at all.

Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, has agreed to use Tulane's own Open Competition program to pick the recipient of his scholarship.

That is a welcome change.

Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, is using the Northshore Community Foundation to select his scholarship recipient.

There are plenty of resources out there for any lawmaker who has in mind the well-being of a deserving student rather than his or her own political reward.

The object of the scholarship program is to make it easier for students throughout the state to attend Tulane. With that in mind, there are many more effective ways than the current system. While there is no wholesale change on the horizon, the lawmakers can take it upon themselves to implement what is best for the students.

Let's hope more of them do.


Capitol Views: Bill to reduce EBR school board membership gets second life PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, May 08 2014 - 12:59 pm

By: Business Report



Less than 24 hours after the House rejected legislation to reduce the size of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, the Senate Education Committee approved its upper chamber counterpart today and gave the policy idea a second life. Yet even if the full Senate provides the same favor to SB 672 by Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, it still has to survive the House, which fell four votes shy Wednesday of passing HB 1178 by Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge. White's proposal—which is supported by BRAC—would reduce the size of the board from 11 members to nine. In a move that could help the bill navigate through the rest of the session, White added an amendment that would make the resulting state law null and void if the school board adopts its own policy to lessen its membership by nine or fewer by Aug. 1. White said the school board is currently working on such a plan, adding: "They're still trying to figure out if it should be nine or seven, I think." He said the drop is justified because the student population is declining in the parish and communities have formed their own school systems over the years outside of the East Baton Rouge framework. The bill picked up only two nay votes following the committee's hearing and was opposed by Louisiana's statewide teachers' unions.

—The Senate Education Committee also passed today SB 343 by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, a constitutional amendment that would allow university management boards to set their own tuition and fees. If the bill can garner a two-thirds vote from both chambers and be accepted by voters on the November ballot, lawmakers would never again have to vote on a tuition increase bill. That would track how most all other states handle the issue. "The Legislature would be removed from the process," Donahue said. Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, said the change would give universities more flexibility in dealing with funding cuts from the state, which have become the norm. "I really don't think you're going to see institutions going way out of line in terms of market rates with tuition with this," Erwin said. With three opposing votes, the proposed constitutional amendment now moves to the full Senate.

(John Maginnis and Jeremy Alford will publish Capitol Views each afternoon on Daily Report PMthrough the end of the legislative session. The report is also available to subscribers Registration is available on the homepage.)

Louisiana Public Broadcasting is providing a daily video update featuring highlights of the session, which you can see beginning at 6 p.m. here.







State House approves bill to create St. Tammany Levee, Drainage and Conservation District PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, May 08 2014 - 12:16 pm

By Robert Rhoden, | The Times-Picayune

A bill establishing St. Tammany Parish as a separate levee district taxing authority is awaiting Gov. Bobby Jindal's signature after receiving unanimous approval in the House of Representatives. Senate Bill 342 by state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Covington, was approved 89-0 in the House on Wednesday (May 14).

The bill calls for the creation of the St. Tammany Levee, Drainage and Conservation District, allowing the parish to withdraw from the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. A St. Tammany Levee District exists on paper, but it has never been activated or funded.

The measure was signed by Senate President John Alario on Thursday. The Senate had given it the green light last month by a 37-0 vote.

Parish President Pat Brister said state Rep. Greg Cromer handled the bill in House, where is was approved without discussion. "It did not take 15 seconds. The fact that we really explained what we wanted to do and why we wanted to do it, everybody understood," she said.

When the measure becomes law, the parish government will begin the process of advertising for candidates to serve on the agency's board, which will come up with projects to protect the coastal areas of the parish, Brister said. People with expertise in such things as engineering, construction and drainage will be sought.

"It's going to take some time and take lots of research into the history of where we flooded and why," she said. "We will have people with expertise on that committee to do that."

Then it will be up to the citizens to decide whether they want to approve a tax to fund flood protection projects, Brister said.

"We have watched while the south shore got the protection they need and deserve. It's now time that we looked at ourselves and look at what we can do to protect our citizens.'

Brister has said the parish will benefit from having its own levee district to decide what projects need to be undertaken to protect the parish from flooding. While billions of dollars have been spent on levee and drainage projects by the federal government in the New Orleans area since 2005, none of the money was spent on project on the north shore, she said.

Brister has acknowledged that the parish has not contributed money to the Southeast Louisiana Flood authority and the regional flood control efforts.

The new levee district would apply to the parish's coastal zone, basically south of Interstates 12 and 10, and would have authority to issue bonds and levy taxes, the bill says. A sales tax of up to 1 cent could be levied if approved by voters.

The tax would not be subject to the combined rate limitation established in the state Constitution.

The district would be governed by a nine-member commission appointed by the governor. At least four of the members must live in the unincorporated area of St. Tammany, Donahue has said.


Our Views: Slow rise for TOPS PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, May 08 2014 - 11:56 am


If it does not exactly rein in the costs of the popular TOPS tuition grants, a bill by Sen. Jack Donahue makes a few sensible changes that will save the taxpayers some money.

The relatively low academic requirements were always a problem in the program now known as the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. The idea of Donahue, R-Mandeville, is to level up the requirements, modestly and over a period of time.

As chairman of the Finance Committee, Donahue is one of the senators with the most responsibility for sorting out the annual difficulties of the state budget. So he is better informed about the rising impact of TOPS on the general fund.

It is an entitlement program. If you meet the academic requirements, you get the tuition waiver.

If it does not pay the full cost of a Louisiana college education, it’s still a nice thing to have. But it is costing the state north of $220 million a year, a vast sum compared with the promises made back in the 1990s about its limited budgetary impact.

The prospect of up to a $300 million hit to the state general fund in the next five years is one scenario that has played out in briefings before Senate Finance. Donahue has a right to be worried.

Donahue’s Senate Bill 520 would increase the minimum grade-point average for an award from only 2.5 to 2.75, and a score of 21 instead of 20 on the ACT admissions test. It would not start until the 2017-18 school year, so people get plenty of warning.

This is just not much to write home about, perhaps, but it’s more courageous than most politicians are.

Where Donahue would tighten up more would be in the higher “performance award” cash category for students with better ACT scores. Those would increase to 25 from 23, and the “honor award” to 29 from 27.

Neither change strikes us as particularly Draconian.

We hope that Donahue’s bill gets a respectful hearing. Far too often, legislators refuse to face the financial implications of a popular program.

Donahue would dedicate a portion of the budgetary savings to the Louisiana Go Grant Program, which helps students in financial need go to college. TOPS is, in government-speak, not “means-tested.”Because students from more affluent families get a better start in life and in education, they tend to get the most benefits of an entitlement like TOPS.

Yet, we don’t think this should be a class-warfare discussion. Good students earn TOPS, if the standards are increased, as Donahue proposes. In a perfect world, the increases in gpa and so forth could be higher, in our view. But for the moment, Donahue’s responsible approach to this issue should get support from lawmakers in both chambers and the governor, if the bill gets to his desk.



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