Tuition and TOPS cost-control bills advance in the House and Senate amid budget cut concerns

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Lawmakers advanced proposals Wednesday to let public colleges raise their own tuition and fee rates, hoping to help campuses threatened with hefty budget cuts from the state.

The House and Senate education committees approved without objection several bills that would remove the Louisiana Legislature from setting tuition and fees, leaving those decisions instead to the college system management boards.

The proposals vary. Some apply only to graduate programs or only to fees. One requires a portion of any fee hikes to be set aside for needs-based aid for students.

The bills allowing for undergraduate student tuition increases differ in the House and Senate in how they link to the TOPS free college tuition program. The version headed to the House floor would exclude any additional tuition increases from being covered by TOPS. The bill headed to the full Senate is linked to a separate proposal that adds cost controls to TOPS.

Higher education leaders are pushing the legislation to help them fill budget gaps from state cuts. Debates in both committees centered on the schools' financial woes.

"Money is extinct. It's not even there at the campuses. But all of us know how important our universities, our community and technical college system are to the future of our state," said Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, sponsor of a bill to let schools raise fees without legislative approval.

He described it as "my proposal to provide them a reasonable lifeline."

Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget proposal includes a mix of cuts and uncertain financing for higher education in the fiscal year that begins July 1, to help close a $1.6 billion budget shortfall. In the worst-case scenario, colleges face a reduction of up to $600 million next year that would strip 80 percent of college systems' state financing.

That would come after several years of budget cuts.

In the House committee, several lawmakers worried about the impact of continued increases in tuition and fees on students and their families and whether they could price some students out of school entirely.

"When our kids go to college this fall, they're going to pay 90 percent more than they did in 2008 for tuition," said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite. But he didn't object to moving the bills to the House floor.

The Senate tuition bill by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, is controversial because it is tied to a separate Donahue proposal that would add cost controls to the TOPS free tuition program.

The TOPS tuition payment rate would be locked in at the 2015-16 level. Rather than the current automatic increases whenever tuition costs rise on college campuses, boosts to TOPS payments in the 2016-17 school year and beyond would have to get separate approval from lawmakers. That would free colleges to raise their charges without increasing state costs.

"This helps manage the growth of TOPS," Donahue said.

Jindal opposes the TOPS changes. His assistant chief of staff Stafford Palmieri said the bill would harm a program that has increased students' likelihood of going to college and graduating.

Donahue's TOPS bill squeaked out of committee on a 4-3 vote.


Online:

House Bills 66, 152 and 168 and Senate Bills 48 and 155 can be found at http://www.legis.la.gov

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