Lawmakers continue to debate scholarship retention standard
By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Legislation that seeks to loosen requirements for keeping lottery-funded scholarships is likely headed to a conference committee, but the Senate sponsor of the bill doesn’t expect it to stall like it did a year ago.
The end of last year’s legislative session was held up for hours because the two chambers couldn’t agree on details of the sweeping proposal, which included an across-the-board reduction in the cumulative grade point average needed to retain merit-based HOPE scholarships.
Currently, students must be enrolled full time in college, have a GPA of at least 2.75 after their freshman year and a cumulative 3.0 GPA in subsequent years to keep the scholarship.
The House last week passed a bill that set the required GPA at 2.75 for all four years of college. In the other chamber, a companion bill being held by the Senate Finance Committee would only give students an extra year to get back up to a 3.0.
But Senate Education chair-man Jamie Woodson said she expects it to come out of the committee and be on the Senate floor as early as Tuesday.
“If there are differences be-tween the two (versions), a conference committee … could resolve those differences in a very productive way as quickly as possible,” the Knoxville Republican said. “It’s certainly not a breakdown.”
House Education Chairman Les Winningham, the main sponsor of the companion bill, couldn’t be reached last week for comment. But Woodson said the Huntsville Democrat “has gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we continue communicating.”
“We might have different ideas, but conversations still remain very productive and I’m very confident that we’ll have a positive resolution,” she said.
Most lawmakers agree that some form of reduction is needed to keep the merit-based award after figures released earlier this year by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed 50 percent of students lost their HOPE scholarships after their first year in college and 68 percent by their fourth year.
Agreement has become more difficult because the economic downturn has led to lower-than-expected lottery revenue projections for next year.
The House’s across-the-board proposal is expected to cost $17.5 million, compared to roughly $7.2 million for the Senate measure, which is mainly backed by Republicans.
Senate Democrats proposed an amendment similar to the House version, but it failed. Nevertheless, Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis says he’s not giving up. He plans to bring up the proposal in negotiations if the bill goes to a conference committee.
“It seems to me that the House voted 2.75 for all students; the Senate Democrats want 2.75 for all students,” he said. “If Senate Republicans will yield on 2.75 for all students, we’ll have a quick resolution to the lottery proposal.”
Kyle said money to fund the across-the-board proposal could come from a measure to use $100 million of the state’s nearly $460 million in lottery reserves to make the Tennessee’s K-12 schools more energy efficient.
He believes a choice needs to be made between “neon lights and caulking,” or providing additional scholarships to help more students complete college.
“It’s very hard to do that and the energy-efficiency program,” he said.
Read the full texts of HB0653/SB0611 and HB4039 on the General Assembly’s Web site at: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us
Published in The Messenger 5.19.08