Tennessee State Sen. Steve Cohen Thursday attacked Gov. Phil Bredesens pre-kindergarten initiative, saying the use of lottery money to fund the program is illegal and unconstitutional.
Cohen (D-Memphis), the chief legislative architect of the state lottery, accused the administration of bringing intentionally low lottery projections to the legislature in 2003 numbers that ultimately led to the substantial surplus now available, he said.
Bredesen called Cohens remarks astonishing.
The lottery was designed to provide these scholarships and we are ... doing so comfortably, Bredesen said. And second of all, in the constitution there are other things that it can be used for and one of those is pre-K.
Bredesens new budget proposes using $25 million of that surplus in providing seed money for a statewide pre-K program, a key initiative in the administrations agenda this year.
Those figures were out of left field; they were goofy numbers, Cohen said. They were put in to sabotage the students getting full scholarships.
And I believe we know what the reason was now. There was no reasonable basis to put those numbers out unless you wanted to create excess for some other project and [hell] be funding pre-kindergarten on the backs of college students.
At the time, Cohens legislation laid out $4,000 scholarships, which later were trimmed back to $3,000, at the administrations suggestion.
The administrations projections set net lottery proceeds at roughly $160 million. But the lottery in its first year did approximately $243 million.
Those numbers ... were like from Saturn, Cohen complained. They made no sense whatsoever. And whoever put them out was either a shill or somebody who ought to be fired, Cohen added.
Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz told a House panel this week that the administration plans to use the $25 million in lottery funding every year moving forward instead of on a one-time basis.
Cohen and House lottery sponsor Rep. Chris Newton (R-Benton) argue that the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2002, doesnt allow for excess funding until lottery scholarships have been fully funded. The states college scholarship program wont be considered mature until a full four years of college classes are paid for, they said.
Under the constitution the lottery must first fund college scholarships and any excess may go toward k-12 capital projects and early learning and after-school programs. The amendment also says lottery proceeds may only supplement not supplant educational funding.
Cohens remarks Thursday marked a rebirth of an often heated debate between the lottery founder and the Bredesen administration.
Cohen and Newton plan legislation to up the scholarship levels to $4,000.
An increase in the level would allow students to pay the whole of their tuition, whereas in some schools currently it does not, Cohen said.
Bredesen agrees with Cohen and Newton that the state likely cant afford both the pre-K funding and scholarship increases. Raising the scholarship would cost roughly $30 million per year, Cohen said. The lottery is expected to generate a surplus of some $115 million by the end of the fiscal year.