HAMMOND, LA— Nearly 70 percent of voters agreed last Saturday to renew a 4-cent sales tax on cigarettes. That cigarette tax generates $12 million a year.The measure takes a portion of tobacco settlement money currently set to be divided between health care and education trust funds, about $40 million per year, and dedicates it to TOPS.
TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) is a program of state scholarships for Louisiana residents who attend either one of the Louisiana Public Colleges and Universities, schools that are a part of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, Louisiana approved Proprietary and Cosmetology Schools or institutions that are a part of the Louisiana Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
The four different award components of the TOPS Program are: TOPS Opportunity Award, TOPS Performance Award, TOPS Honors Award, and TOPS Tech Award. About one-third of all full-time students in Louisiana public and private colleges and universities now receive TOPS. Mark Jones, a sophomore majoring in Business said, ” The scholarship takes a lot of financial stress away from me. With this amendment passing more students will receive funds for their education. I voted for it.”
Lawmakers connected the two to get around a veto from Gov. Bobby Jindal, who opposed the tax renewal, but pressed hard for the TOPS funding ballot initiative. “I did not vote for the 1st amendment on the ballot. Jindal promised not to raise taxes, but hide the rise of taxes through this amendment” Freshman, Education major Crystal Johnson said.
According to Mike Nettles, an adviser at the Center for Student Excellence.“A cigarette tax should not be a permanent fixture of our Constitution because cigarettes are addictive and harmful any taxation of the product should be spent on rehabilitating the addict, not punishing them with ever increasing costs. If you jack prices up to the point where they are cost prohibitive over all consumption and, thus, revenue may decline. Why rely on people damaging themselves to fund education? It’s unethical because you would have to pray for more addicts to fund our education budget instead of fixing our systemic and long term problems.”
The change takes affect with tobacco settlement money received after April 1, 2011, so the amendment gives TOPS $80 million for the current fiscal year.