HITHER AND YON: John Bel Edwards’ TOPS Box

In the aftermath of the special legislative session that wrapped up on Thursday night, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has a problem of his own making.

Edwards used the popular TOPS college scholarship program, which is probably the single most well-liked thing that Louisiana’s state government does, as a hostage for tax increases enabling him to grow Louisiana’s budget by some $2 billion – and even though that budget growth did occur, Edwards still signed budget cuts to TOPS which shrink its awards by 30 percent compared to a year ago. This, at the same time while higher education funding is to take a $178 million cut – meaning that it’s going to cost college students a whole bunch of money out of pocket to go to school in the upcoming academic year.

Edwards’ strategy was to place TOPS, which had been a high-priority budget item for the past eight years, at the bottom of the priority list and insist on tax increases to fund it after lots of other things most people wouldn’t care much about had already been covered in the budget. And he managed to get his way, thanks to the obeisance of the Senate in scrapping House budget plans that did prioritize TOPS.

But the House did manage to get one budget item passed in the just-completed special session – namely, that any cuts to TOPS awards will only kick in this spring rather than right away. So if TOPS were to take a 30 percent cut, none of the cut would come in the fall; a TOPS award would be 100 percent in the fall and then 40 percent in the spring.

Why do this? Two reasons. First, the House believes that Louisiana is going to have considerably more to spend this year than Edwards is advertising, for a couple of reasons. One, oil is trading considerably above what the revenue estimators have pegged its price to be in their projections, and two, the fiscal notes on the tax increases the legislature passed were stingy to the point of suspicion. They think the state’s budget might well be in surplus rather than the deficit Edwards has howled about since he took office.

And Edwards in a box on this issue, because he has to make a choice whether to veto the line item on fully funding TOPS in the fall and letting the cuts occur in the spring.

If he vetoes that provision he guarantees the formation of a lobby group made up of TOPS parents and students (and high school parents and students expecting to qualify). Every soccer mom in Louisiana will join, and they will be loud, and they will all start with the premise that John Bel Edwards is the enemy.

If no more money surfaces, they TOPS parents, joined by lots of Republican legislators, are going to scream about money wasted elsewhere that could be used on TOPS. If money does surface, it’s even worse – he can’t run a surplus after underfunding TOPS and he can’t direct those funds elsewhere, because the TOPS crowd will consider either a declaration of war.

And if he applies the extra revenue that would materialize to making TOPS whole, then what? Refunds for the underfunded fall semester? He’ll look like an incompetent if he does that, though at least then he’s a good-natured incompetent and not the villain out to stick it to the Republican-leaning TOPS parents that he’s appeared since taking office and holding TOPS hostage to tax increases. Either way, insisting on TOPS cuts in the fall, when those parents only have two months to come up with the cost increase, is bad politics unless Edwards knows for a fact that he can’t fund the program. And he doesn’t know that; in fact, he knows the opposite is true. He knows that because the previous administration fully funded TOPS for eight years on even smaller state budgets, mostly, than this one will be, and that was before TOPS was decoupled from university tuition this year.

The only smart play for Edwards is to go along with the legislature on the 100 percent fall funding. But if he does that, he takes the chance of having to admit all of his crisis talk was overblown and he won’t be able to use it next year.

It will be interesting to see what he does. Either way he’s got a problem. Stupid political games always result in lost credibility; the only question is how long it takes.

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On the subject of stupid political games, by the way, this isn’t just evidence that Rep. Marcus Hunter is a complete moron…

Believe it or not, Hunter is only one of the legislature’s Democrats taking such a position.

If you don’t get it, here’s what he’s saying – he’s saying that Democrats and Republicans who vote for tax increases – because to do so makes them “brave public servants” and “willing to do the right thing for the people of Louisiana” – are the only ones who should have a say in how the revenue raised by those tax increases is spent. And since Marcus Hunter is one of the dimmer bulbs in the legislature you should not be surprised that he’s only parroting that line and somebody else came up with it.

We’ve had several legislators tell us this has been a mantra of John Bel Edwards’ pals at the Capitol most of the year. If you’re not willing to raise taxes then you’re essentially not qualified to spend the state’s money.

Marcus Hunter is just the first one stupid or honest enough to put that argument in its proper posture – namely, to frame those tax increases as robbery and the people pushing them as thieves. For this we should be grateful.

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Then there is this

The LSU Board of Supervisors on Friday (June 24) authorized the university’s AgCenter to move forward with plans to build a medical marijuana production facility, a major decision that answers a fundamental question about Louisiana’s new medical marijuana law.

A spokesman at Southern University, the other institution authorized under state law to become a production center, said that school’s Board of Supervisors approved a similar measure Friday. It was not immediately clear whether the two schools would collaborate on the venture.

The decisions come two months before a deadline the Legislature set for LSU and Southern University to decide whether they want to be the designated facilities in the state for producing the drug. Bill Richardson, LSU’s vice president for agriculture, told the board Friday that he believes the university can address any questions raised about federal funding and security.

Questions about security? There are no questions. It goes without saying that if LSU or Southern are using agricultural extensions to grow cannabis plants, it won’t be a secret where they’ll be doing it and folks will show up to pilfer their pot. This is going to be a Charlie Foxtrot of biblical proportions.

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For Today’s Last Thing, we have good news. And like most good news where Louisiana is concerned these days, we look to LSU athletics.

Specifically, the football team is out recruiting players for the 2017 season, and they just reeled in a pair of kids from Texas to play wide receiver who are off-the-charts good.

Here’s Mannie Netherly, a 6-2, 185-pound speed-burner from Crosby, Texas…

And here’s Jhamon Ausbon, a 6-3, 215-pound moose from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida who originally hails from Houston (he spent his junior year at St. Thomas High and his sophomore year at Episcopal in that city)…

Consider that LSU got two of the top 10 high school quarterbacks in the country to throw the ball to these guys, and it might just be that Les Miles ends up looking like his teams can throw the ball after all.

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