He looks like an aging preppy, can lay on the charm like nobody's business, and on most days, would as soon talk Tiger football or World Series results as politics. But state senator Steve Cohen is as serious about his legislation as serious can be -- in particular, about the Tennessee state lottery, of which Cohen is generally recognized as the proud papa.
As for the tenacity of the Midtown state senator, who fought for some 20 years to get the lottery established (via a complicated multi-stage process that required a statewide constitutional referendum), just ask Governor Phil Bredesen. The governor has decidedly different ideas about what
to do with this new public cornucopia, which, as several billboards posted around the state make known, has garnered almost $400 million for Tennessee education in its first full year of operation.
Bredesen, who spent much of his first year in office engaged in a struggle with Cohen for control of the lottery process, wants to set aside a portion of its proceeds -- $25 million annually -- for use in state pre-kindergarten programs.
"I'm the one who wrote into the Constitution the provisions for funds to go to pre-K," says Cohen and notes that his bill establishing the lottery earmarked the first proceeds to go toward the creation and endowment of college scholarships for Tennessee high school students. He says there's "unquestionably" more than enough money to take care of both needs.
And he thinks that Bredesen, in rejecting Cohen's proposal last year to raise scholarship levels -- from $3,000 to $4,000 annually -- is reversing the ordained priorities of the lottery.
"There's $200 million in lottery monies that have not been spent," Cohen says. "This is at a time when tuition has been rising nationally and in Tennessee at a rate of 10 percent, which makes it more difficult for the middle class and lower-income folks to get an education."
The senator calls the bottling of his legislation to increase scholarships a "breach of trust with the people of Tennessee," and he unreservedly blames "the governor and his minions."
For all his frustration, though, Cohen takes pride in the way the lottery has performed. "It's been hugely successful. All the naysayers who resisted it have been proved wrong. More often than not, the people who were against it in the legislature in the first place are the ones who are trying so hard now to get it to apply to their pet causes: church schools, home schooling, what-have-you."
Meanwhile, there's a new session of the legislature coming, and Cohen will again dedicate himself to the task of raising scholarship levels and setting the table a little more comfortably for scholarship applicants.
Will he succeed? That remains to be seen, but be sure of one thing: Steve Cohen doesn't give up easy.