Since becoming a state senator in 1982, one of my primary legislative goals was to permit Tennesseans to vote on a state lottery. The struggle to accomplish this goal was often lonely and discouraging as the process to amend our state Constitution is one of the most difficult in the nation. However, my constituents as well as citizens from across the state never stopped encouraging me to persevere so they could vote on their Constitution.
Because Tennesseans never gave up, I never gave up. On November 5th, the people spoke and changed our state Constitution to permit the General Assembly to create a lottery. Although it was the culmination of two decades of work and the most gratifying legislative victory of my career, the real work began on November 6th.
The formation of a lottery corporation is the equivalent of building a Fortune 500 company from scratch. Representative Chris Newton (R-Cleveland), the House sponsor of the constitutional referendum and the sponsor of the lottery legislation, and I are committed to ensuring that Tennessee has the best lottery in the nation, well-run and above reproach.
To that end we have stated, throughout the legislative process and the campaign to pass the referendum, that Tennessee's lottery and HOPE scholarship program would be patterned on Georgia's, which is the nation's flagship lottery and scholarship program.
As is always the case when money is involved, all quarters are heard from. It is perfectly understandable that every legislator, school administrator, and parent would want to do what is best for their constituents, school, and child, respectively. However, the General Assembly must be fiscally conservative in establishing standards for the lottery scholarships to assure that we have not promised what cannot be delivered.
To understand how such can be successfully done, we need look no farther than Georgia. When Georgia's HOPE scholarship program began, a 3.0 was required for receipt of a HOPE scholarship, although any student could attend technical school without the GPA requirement. Students are given a tangible reason to improve their grades, and the prospect of graduating from college without incurring debt is beneficial to the student, the student's family, and the state's economy.
Lowering the GPA requirement, as has been suggested by some, would dilute the power of the program's incentive and would be prohibitively expensive. Tennessee's lottery scholarship program was touted as a means of encouraging students to achieve, rewarding their achievement, and keeping the best and brightest in our state, and I believe that is what Tennesseans expect our HOPE program to do.
When Georgia's HOPE began, it was restricted to students with a family income of less than $66,000, and the amount of money that a student received from a PELL grant (federal aid for the truly needy) reduced the amount of HOPE money available to that student. Further, qualified students choosing to attend private institutions within Georgia were granted only a $500 HOPE scholarship while those who attended Georgia's public colleges were granted $3,000. Within a few years, as the Georgia lottery flourished, the income cap and the PELL grant restriction were both lifted. Also, students choosing to attend private colleges can now receive a HOPE scholarship of $3,000 as well as qualify for the Georgia Tuition Equalization Grant of $1,045, for a total of $4,045 per academic year.
I'm sure that Georgia would have preferred to begin HOPE at the level at which it now exists, but the Georgia Legislature understood that the lottery corporation and the scholarship program had to be self-supporting and no cost to taxpayers. It was paramount for Georgia, as it is for Tennessee, to be fiscally conservative at the beginning of the lottery scholarship program until it is clear what the revenue will be.
I am confident that Tennessee's HOPE will be as successful as Georgia's and that the questions of income and public or private institutions will be settled to almost everyone's satisfaction. The sooner that can be achieved, the sooner Tennessee's students will have HOPE.
Steve Cohen is a Democratic state senator from Memphis.