NASHVILLE -- Top House and Senate Democrats on Monday called on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to block GOP legislative efforts they say would slash more than 5,000 lottery-funded college scholarships in the future.
"This legislation is short-sighted, unnecessary and harmful to our students and our economy," Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said. "The governor has stated that college isn't for everyone, but that it needs to be for a lot more Tennesseans."
Kyle said that under the bill, which toughens qualifications for students receiving HOPE scholarships, "college will be something else for thousands of Tennesseans. It will be out of reach."
Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and Senate Education Committee Chairman Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, said the bill is needed because the lottery is running a deficit, pegged at $17 million to $19 million.
But Democratic critics say with lottery revenues up $10 million over projections so far this year, the crisis is overstated and the lottery's $360 million to $380 million in reserves can tide shortfalls over for years until it is absolutely necessary to act.
Haslam's office did not respond to an email inquiry and phone call about Democrats' urging him to get involved.
Currently, students must have either a 3.0 grade-point average or score a 21 on their ACT to qualify for a full $4,000 annual scholarship. The bill requires they have both or their award will be cut in half to $2,000.
Meanwhile, the Gresham bill is under fire on another front: While graduates of public institutions such as Brainerd High School in Chattanooga or private institutions such as Notre Dame and Chattanooga Christian School would be subject to the new requirements, home-schooled students would not.
Instead, home-schooled students still could qualify for a full $4,000 scholarship with only a 21 on the ACT. The original bill stated they would have to have a 23 score on the ACT, but it was reduced by Republicans.
"It's unfair to treat kids differently based on where they go to school. That's a simple principle," said state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. "They [sponsors] did not explain why they lowered it, but I think they heard loudly from the home-school community who felt they were being treated unfairly."
Berke said that "if I were a home-schooler and I got a 21 on ACT and 21 on two of the four subparts -- which I assume you get; it would be very unusual not to get that if your composite is a 21 -- then you get a $4,000 award."
"If you did that as a public or private school graduate but you had a 2.9 GPA, you would get a $2,000 scholarship," Berke said.
Ramsey said he was not familiar with the home-school exclusion.
He defended toughening qualifying for the scholarships generally last week, noting that if gas hits $5 a gallon, lottery revenues could be affected.
"The reason that we're doing this is to make sure the lottery is stable five years from now and 10 years from now," he said.
If lottery revenues continue to improve, Ramsey said, "I got a feeling you'll see us change it back. But right now, we need to continue on the bill that everyone agreed on a few months ago" in a lottery task force report.
In a related lottery matter, the House voted 73-18 Monday night to boost the required amount of money in the lottery reserve from $50 million to $100 million.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.