State lawmakers discuss differences in lottery bill
By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
Associated Press Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — When lawmakers met Monday to iron out differences on the lottery bill, the biggest sticking point was a proposal to let students keep their merit-based HOPE scholarships even if their grades slip below the current minimum.
Although lawmakers fought the same issue to a standstill last year, leaders say they expect to reach a compromise this time.
The House passed its version last week, and the Senate is expected to vote on the companion bill as early as Tuesday. Lawmakers acknowledged that the legislation is likely headed to a conference committee and they’re beginning discussions before it gets there.
Currently, students must be enrolled full time in college, have a grade point average of at least 2.75 after their freshman year and a cumulative 3.0 GPA in subsequent years to keep the scholarship.
The House bill would set the required GPA at 2.75 for all four years of college, while the Senate version would give students an extra year to get back up to a 3.0.
Senate Democrats and some House Democrats say the state could pay for it by using some of the $100 million — out of the state’s nearly $460 million in lottery reserves — that other leaders want to use to make Tennessee’s K-12 schools more energy efficient.
Rep. Ulysses Jones Jr., a Memphis Democrat who attended Monday’s meeting, suggested delaying the energy efficiency proposal a year, or reducing the amount of money funding it.
“Instead of $100 million, why can’t it be $75 million?” Jones asked.
Rep. Les Winningham, a Huntsville Democrat and the main sponsor of the House’s energy efficient schools bill, said the plan needs to be fully funded to be “sustainable.” The proposal would also establish a council to award grants or loans for improvements such as better lighting or insulation.
Sen. Rosalind Kurita said she doesn’t want to delay the energy efficiency measure because her constituents say it would benefit their schools.
“I don’t want to dump energy efficiency because it’s so meaningful,” said the Clarksville Democrat.
Most lawmakers agree that some form of grade adjustment is needed to keep the merit-based award. 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.
However, agreement has become more difficult because the economic downturn has lowered lottery revenue projections for next year.
The across-the-board grade reduction would cost $17.5 million, compared to roughly $7.2 million for the other version.
Rep. Harry Brooks, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and other Republicans, have proposed letting students with a B-minus average keep their grants with a small reduction in the scholarship amount as an incentive to work back to a B.
Currently, the scholarships pay up to $4,000 a year for traditional four-year colleges and $2,000 for two-year institutions. “If they get back to a 3.0, then they get back their full scholarships,” said Brooks, R-Knoxville.
House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh didn’t attend Monday’s meeting. But the Covington Democrat said he expects some type of resolution in contrast to last year.
“I feel pretty confident that we’re going to come out with something rather than what we did last year, which was nothing,” Naifeh said. “When I say nothing, we did raise the scholarship amounts, but I’m talking about the 2.75. We’re hoping that we can get something done.”
Read the full text of SB0611/HB0653 and SB4039 on the General Assembly’s Web site at: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us
Associated Press Writer Beth Rucker contributed to this story.
Published in The Messenger 5.20.08