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A TOPS-y turvy mess 

It sounds good to say, "Just cut more" — and that's what taxpayers want to believe — but that makes the lie all the more cynical.

In a state where many things don't work, TOPS has been an exception — a program that guaranteed qualifying Louisiana high school graduates a four-year scholarship to a state university. Through economic adversity, fluctuating oil prices and the long recovery after Hurricane Katrina, TOPS remained a constant for decades.

  Until last week.

  Faced with Louisiana's largest-ever budget deficit, Gov. John Bel Edwards last week announced the suspension of TOPS payments. Though no student will get a tuition bill this semester, future TOPS awards could be curtailed drastically as lawmakers ponder ways to close Louisiana's crushing budget deficits — $943 million this fiscal year (which ends June 30) and another $2 billion next year.

  Everyone knew former Gov. Bobby Jindal, with help from state lawmakers, drove Louisiana into a fiscal ditch over the last eight years. Year after year, Jindal and lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — spent one-time funds to plug systemic budget holes. Jindal is gone now, but his legacy of fiscal irresponsibility — many call it malfeasance — lives on. And the well of one-time funds has run dry.

  Edwards has summoned lawmakers into a special session to deal with the crisis. Predictably, some Republicans still mouth Jindal's meme that Louisiana just needs to cut more, not increase revenues.

  That is a lie. It sounds good to say, "Just cut more" — and that's certainly what taxpayers want to believe — but that makes the lie all the more cynical.

  Every responsible, independent entity that has studied Louisiana's finances — including those dominated by conservative business interests — has concluded that cuts alone will not fix what Jindal broke. Truth is, Jindal was a big spender. He lavishly doled out tax exemptions — which actually are expenses — to favored industries and supporters, so much so that Louisiana now gives away more in corporate tax credits than it receives in corporate income taxes. That is absurd.

  Regarding TOPS, the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOFSA) says colleges will absorb the $28 million in cuts this semester. On Friday, Edwards said, "Next year, as it stands, TOPS is only funded 25 percent, unless the Legislature acts to change that."

  TOPS is funded by the Tobacco Trust Fund, but that dedication covers only $65 million of the program's current $265 million cost. That's why TOPS remains on the chopping block for next school year. Some say threatening TOPS (and LSU football) was just a scare tactic to pressure lawmakers into raising taxes. Governors for generations have threatened to slaughter sacred cows if lawmakers don't raise taxes, so the accusation resonates.

  Scare tactic or not, Edwards has grabbed voters' attention. Meanwhile, he should heed the advice of GOP lawmakers who say Louisiana needs long-term spending reforms as well as increased revenues. That's what real fiscal reform looks like.

  Even the staunchest TOPS supporters acknowledge that the program should be reformed to contain runaway costs. At the same time, Edwards and lawmakers should see this crisis as an opportunity to fix everything that's broken, not just some parts of it.

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