BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - In passing its own rewrite of the state budget, a Republican-controlled committee identified its top priority: TOPS.
The House Appropriations Committee amended the state budget plan for next, fully funding the TOPS scholarship program for college students while leaving other programs short.
"It helps all of my constituents, it helps all of your constituents," said Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, making the pitch for TOPS.
Louisiana is facing a projected $650 million shortfall for the fiscal year starting in July. That forces lawmakers to choose what it is they want to fund and what to cut.
Foil argued that by fully funding TOPS, they send a clear message to students at a time many are making their college choices. Democrats on the panel balked.
"We've already been through a special session, where if we wanted to send a message to the students of this state, we would have generated revenue that is sufficient to be able to do that. But we didn't," said Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.
While the plan adopted by the panel fully funds TOPS, state colleges themselves take a hit.
Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, asked why students would choose to go to Louisiana colleges if they keep losing staff and programs because of the tight budget environment.
"This is totally out of whack," she said.
The committee's plan would also put a big dent in healthcare, potentially forcing the state's partner hospitals that treat the poor to back out of their agreements. The La. Department of Health warned that some facilities – including the newly opened North Baton Rouge Emergency Room – could be forced to close.
Democrats accused Republicans of putting TOPS before the well-being of the people.
The governor has argued a second special session is needed to replace expiring taxes and avoid steep cuts. That is not a view shared by some key House leaders, who believe more cuts can be found.
"Me personally, I haven't really gotten there yet," said Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, of a special session. Henry chairs the House Appropriations committee.
In a statement, the governor slammed the budget plan passed by the House committee, saying it is "not worth the paper it's printed on" and is "not a serious attempt to tackle the problems we face."
The budget now heads to the full House for consideration. It is scheduled for debate on the floor this Thursday.