A $200 million state surplus of unspent lottery money is prompting some to call for Tennessee to increase the amount of the scholarships the lottery money funds.
Currently, the Tennessee Lottery has turned over to the state a surplus of $200 million worth of unspent money the lottery has collected through ticket sales.
Gov. Phil Bredesen and other officials say the surplus is necessary to support the scholarship program if it was to have a bad sales year.
But state Sen. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), a long-time supporter of the lotto program, said Bredesen's administration should take the surplus and increase the amount of the scholarships the state currently grants.
"The scholarships were never intended to be less than full tuition at a state college," Cohen said. "That's what I intended when I drafted that language."
The Tennessee HOPE scholarship is the common state scholarship awarded to qualifying students. It currently grants a $3,300 per year benefit to help pay for a college education.
Cohen, who calls the lottery program "his baby," said the reason the scholarships became partial is because of some inaccurate numbers concerning how much money the state would take in from the lottery.
"Those figures were way off base and I suggested they were at the time," Cohen said. "That's a breach of trust of the legislature with the people. Not making them full scholarships, that's what they were supposed to be."
Bredesen responded, saying the cushion the state has built up was part of the state's strategy to gradually increase the program to the status of covering all four collegiate grade levels.
That way, the state will be insured that it can grant scholarships to all qualifying students, Bredesen said.
"I don't want to ever have to look a student in the eye and say, 'I can't fulfill our obligation as a state to you with a scholarship,'" Bredesen said.
As far as the state having full scholarships in the future, Bredesen said he would like to see that happen, but would rather wait until the lottery is on more solid ground.
"A couple of great years at the beginning of a lottery program doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to remain at that level forever so let's just be careful and cautious about it and see the money before we spend it," Bredesen said.
The Tennessee Lottery started selling tickets in January of 2004.
Rep. Beth Harwell (R-Nashville), a member of Cohen's lottery oversight committee, said she'd like to see lottery money begin to more adequately fund elementary and secondary education before more is spent on collegiate programs.
Since the lottery was created, the program has contributed more than $415 million to educational initiatives that include higher education, pre-K and after school programs.
To qualify for the HOPE scholarship, a high school senior must earn at least a 3.0 grade point average or score a 21 on the ACT to receive up to a $3,300 scholarship per academic year at a public or private institution within the state.
Once in college, the scholarship winners must maintain a B average.