As they rush toward establishing a Tennessee lottery, state legislators are getting this sage advice from Georgia lottery officials: be careful.
So says state Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, who is finally winning his determined fight to establish a lottery in Tennessee.
Let us add some unsolicited advice: donÕt forget the middle class when Tennessee lottery proceeds are handed out.
Middle-class Tennesseans work hard to scare up enough money to send our children to college where they Ð we hope Ð get the education they need to better themselves and the world they inherit from us.
By working hard, we sometimes earn too much money for our children to qualify for scholarships based on income levels. Our children, despite excellent grades, often are shut out of scholarship money, thereby burdening working parents even more.
Meanwhile, students with inferior grades but with less financial wherewithal are entitled to wads of scholarship money.
ThatÕs just not right.
The Tennessee lottery is a chance to change that disparity.
From Year 1, make lottery scholarship money available to every academically eligible Tennessee high school senior who will attend college in Tennessee. No income limits.
Of course, the seniors would have to meet the academic guidelines, at least a B-average. Should the scholarship fund run low, then establish income limits until the fund is replenished. At that point, remove the income limits.
Tennessee voters overturned the constitutional prohibition against lotteries, largely because the money Ð after expenses and payouts to lottery winners Ð would be used for education. Legislation to establish a state lottery should take into consideration the role of middle-class Tennesseans who voted for overturning the lottery prohibition.
Our children should get a piece of the lottery pie. A group of legislators spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Georgia, a state whose HOPE scholarship program is a godsend for high school seniors who want to pursue higher education.
The message from Georgia lottery officials was this: be careful.
Cohen says his group also was advised to go slowly as they work toward setting up a lottery.
In its first year, GeorgiaÕs lottery-funded scholarships were limited to families with incomes of less than $66,000 a year. ThatÕs about twice the average salary of a Georgia teacher.
The Georgia lottery was so successful the first year that income limits were raised to $100,000 a year. The income limits have now been removed altogether.
Cohen envisions something like that in Tennessee, except he thinks income ceilings would never be lifted here.
The limits should be similar to GeorgiaÕs first year. If the lottery works as it should, then income limits should be raised so that any child with a B-average would qualify for scholarships.
A Tennessee lottery, like GeorgiaÕs, would provide money for high school students with good grades to attend any institution of higher learning, from vocational-technical schools (now called technology centers) to Vanderbilt University, the most expensive undergraduate program in Tennessee.
There should be enough money left over to pay for early childhood education programs, Cohen says.
This school yearÕs high school juniors should be the first group of students eligible for lottery scholarships. This yearÕs seniors, who would be college freshmen that first lottery year, might be able to participate in the program, though thereÕs no guarantee this early in the game.
Should Tennessee become the 39th state to establish a lottery, it would be operated as a business. Once the lottery is up and running, the only state involvement would be an annual audit of the operating agency.
ÒThey wonÕt be state employees,Ó Cohen says.
Also, all lottery records would be open to public inspection, except for Social Security and telephone numbers of lottery winners.
All-in-all, it sounds like a good start for Tennesseans who have clamored for a lottery for years.
In that spirit of openness, letÕs make sure no deserving student gets left behind.