Editor's note: Governor Phil Bredesen proposes to spend "excess" lottery revenues to endow a statewide pre-kindergarten program. State senator Cohen urges instead that the money be used to raise the ceiling of lottery-funded college scholarships. (See Politics, p. 11, for more information.)
The current debate about how to spend lottery revenues sidesteps a critical point: The determination of how lottery funds must be spent was made by the voters in November 2002.
Lottery proceeds are constitutionally dedicated to college scholarships. "Excess" revenues are directed to pre-kindergarten and after-school programs and capital outlay. The intent of the law, the ballot language, the electoral debate, and the constitutional amendment itself all direct lottery revenues to scholarships first.
Any other agenda ignores the legislative intent of the amendment and the will of the people. I am confident that lottery revenues will prove sufficient for their primary purpose of scholarships and, ultimately, for pre-K as well.
In 2002 and 2003, education experts met for months, crafting lottery legislation. They recommended scholarships of $4,000 for students attending four-year schools and $2,000 for students attending junior colleges.
During the implementation of lottery legislation in 2003, fears based on faulty revenue figures were used to convince lawmakers that the needed funds would not be available. Ultimately, scholarships were scaled back to ceilings of $1,500 for two-year colleges and $3,000 for four-year institutions.
Those fears proved to be unfounded. In 2003, I told the state Senate that the lottery would net $210 million its first year. That is also what the state funding board, based on 11 months of sales, forecast for the first fiscal year. The lottery actually netted $235 million.
In its first year, the Tennessee lottery raised twice as much as was spent on scholarships. The extremely conservative state funding board has projected lottery revenues of $220 million for next year -- enough for full scholarships and abundant excess too.
In December, the federal Department of Education announced financial eligibility changes that are expected to take away Pell grants from 80,000 to 90,000 students nationwide and reduce the amount of Pell grants for another 1.3 million students. More than 86,000 Tennesseans now receive Pell grants. Last year, tuition was increased by both the University of Tennessee and the Board of Regents. Tuition will be increased again this year, further diminishing the value of a $3,000 scholarship.
I have a fiduciary duty, based on a contract with the voters in the 2002 election, to ensure that there are $4,000 lottery scholarships, as promised.
These are not trivial matters to Tennessee families. Lottery revenues should not be in play because some want to divert lottery funds, contrary to the people's constitutional mandate. Continuing to award students "half a loaf" is not best for our state.
The Legislature needs to fulfill its mandate from the citizens of Tennessee. Government cannot deal in broken promises and expect public trust. I urge everyone, especially those who are beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries of lottery scholarships, to contact your state senator and state representative and urge that lottery revenues adequately fund college scholarships, as promised. n
State senator Steve Cohen, D-Midtown, is universally regarded as the "father" of the Tennessee lottery, having labored 19 years in the Legislature to get it established.