We knew going in that while there was no effective way to use budget cuts as a political weapon against the state’s Republican voters John Bel Edwards was going to savage the TOPS program as quickly as possible in order to gain leverage for tax increases against Republican legislators who would otherwise object. Edwards signaled that fact pretty clearly when he threatened to leave TOPS scholarship recipients in the lurch in the middle of the spring semester before the special session, and to an extent it worked – he was able to buffalo the legislators into accepting over a billion dollars’ worth of tax hikes.
But what he wanted was $2 billion. And he’s not done beating on the TOPS program.
So today, when Edwards released his proposal to balance a 2016-17 budget he says is $753 million in deficit, he’s now talking about cutting TOPS by three quarters of its current funding – a $183 million cut.
That would mean it would require a 28 on the ACT to earn a TOPS scholarship this fall. Almost everybody with a 28 can choose among several academic scholarships even more generous than TOPS at universities around the country; the program would become meaningless.
But since most of the kids who currently earn TOPS scholarships are either in private schools, magnet schools or from parishes like St. Tammany, Ascension and Livingston where their parents made a conscious decision to buy into a good school district, there is a distinct lack of interest on the part of Louisiana’s Democrat pols – and Edwards in particular – in expanding or even keeping TOPS.
The doctrine here isn’t difficult. They want tuition to be free, or close to it, and they want money for higher education to flow through politicians. TOPS is, at the end of the day, a school choice plan. Money follows the student, not the state legislator. That’s no good for him, so TOPS is the first place he cuts.
It’s not the only place, of course. Health care is taking a $409 million cut. The state’s public colleges are taking a $46 million cut. There’s a $34 million cut to prisons. A $16 million cut to the judiciary. The legislature is getting cut $7 million. Juvenile Justice takes an $18 million hit. $52 million to the state Department of Education, which we expect to find when the details are released will include wiping out funding for school vouchers – another attack on school choice.
But those are giant expenditures the state has in its portfolio. TOPS is a small line item. Its cuts are game-changing, while the others are relatively minor.
What to draw from this? Edwards’ budget is an unabashedly political document, and it tells you all you need to know. He’s weaponizing state government against the people who didn’t vote for him. And if you want to defend against those attacks you’ll drop opposition to his demands for more taxes.