Lawmakers convene, prepare for lottery scholarship debate
NASHVILLE (AP) — Debates over proposals to change lottery scholarship rules are expected to feature heavily in the second session of the 105th General Assembly that convened Tuesday.
Democrats argue that the $4,000 lottery scholarships should be made easier to retain by lowering the required grade point averages. Students must currently average at least a B-minus the first year and a B every year after.
Republicans want to keep the standards at their current levels while creating an avenue for students to earn back their scholarships after a bad semester.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said the options range from doing nothing to eliminating all GPA requirements.
“But nobody’s in favor of either of those extremes,” he said.
The argument will likely come down to money.
If Democrats have their way, a larger number of students with lottery scholarships would chip away at the about $400 million amassed in the Lottery’s reserves.
House Republicans, meanwhile, want to resurrect a proposal they championed last session to use any lottery reserves above $250 million — meaning about $150 million — to distribute among the state’s 136 school districts for construction projects.
House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower, R-Bristol, said lowering the lottery scholarship standards would cheapen students’ degrees.
“We have to ensure those diplomas mean something, we can’t continue to lower standards until anybody can just skate through,” he said.
House Majority Leader Gary Odom was dismissive of the plan to use lottery reserves for school building projections. The Nashville Democrat said Republicans want “to throw $200 million up in the air and see where it sticks on the roofs of schools in the state, sacrificing college scholarship grants for Tennesseans.”
The fight over how to spend lottery reserves takes on added importance for lawmakers in a tight budget year that’s not likely to see surpluses elsewhere. The state is projecting that it will collect between $147 million and $240 million below expectations for the budget year that ends in June.
House Finance Chairman Craig Fitzhugh said officials should be able to manage their way through any shortfall without taking any drastic measures.
“We’re not in the budget crunch we had several years ago that was very difficult,” the Ripley Democrat said. “And last year we had such a good budget year that it was quite difficult as well.
“This is a budget shortfall that we can handle — we’ll just have to be frugal about it,” he said.
University of Tennessee President John Petersen said it will defer to the “legislative determination” on how to tweak lottery scholarships. But the scholarships have already helped the state keep many top-performing students in the state, he said.
“And if you keep them in state, the chance of getting them to contribute to the work force in the state is much better. So that’s a big piece,” he said.
Published in The Messenger 1.9.08