NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Democratic leaders are calling on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to stop a legislative effort to cut some students' lottery scholarships in half, saying the proposal would make more than 5,000 students ineligible for a full scholarship.
The Republican-backed measure would reduce by 50 percent the award — also called the HOPE scholarship — for students who do not meet both standardized testing and high school grade requirements.
Right now, students can get a scholarship worth $4,000 for each of four years if they either earn a 3.0 grade point average in high school or score a 21 on their ACT college entrance exam.
The plan, which doesn't apply to students attending community colleges, is estimated to generate about $13 million in savings the first year and $17 million each year thereafter. A special panel of lawmakers recommended the proposal in November.
Democrats, however, told reporters at a news conference on Monday that the legislation is unnecessary because the lottery reserve is more than $300 million and the lottery's education proceeds have increased 4 percent since 2005, with about $10 million more coming in a year.
Tennessee Lottery officials told members of the Senate Education Committee last week that the lottery has set record gross sales every month since July.
"We can sustain scholarships for at least the next 20 years," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis. "Republicans want to take more scholarship money and just stuff it in a mattress."
Supporters of the proposal say it's needed because the cost of the scholarship program is still outpacing lottery revenues. To make up the difference in the short term, the state has dipped into the lottery reserves. If nothing is done, state officials estimate the lottery reserve balance could dwindle to about $145 million by 2021, including the $50 million that state law requires remain in reserve for the program.
Legislation to raise the $50 million figure to $100 million passed the House 73-18 later Monday evening. The companion bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate Finance Committee.
Democratic House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said the governor should weigh in on the issue because the proposal could adversely affect job growth in Tennessee.
"The governor has said over and over that we need more college graduates in Tennessee, and nearly 60 percent of the new jobs created in this state are going to require some type of higher education," Fitzhugh said. "How can we increase college graduates if we decrease the access to scholarships?"
Haslam spokesman David Smith told The Associated Press in an email that "the governor believes we should not leave future generations holding the tab on lottery scholarships, but he has said and continues to think it is worth looking at new revenue projections and finding a right balance."