Depending on how much money it collects, Arkansas' state-run lottery could fund college scholarships ranging from $2,500 to $5,500 annually under a draft bill released to lawmakers Wednesday.
Discussing the draft in a legislative committee meeting, House Speaker Robbie Wills, D-Conway, said he and the other lawmakers who have been working on the bill believe scholarship amounts should be tied to the performance of the lottery, which is still unknown.
"We believe the bottom line is this: The more the lottery makes, the higher the scholarship award could be," Wills said at a joint meeting of the House Rules Committee and the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.
Wills said the bill would direct lottery proceeds to an existing state scholarship program, the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship, which now serves 8,000 students at a cost of $20 million a year and is based on both financial need and academic achievement.
The plan calls for looser academic requirements for the Academic Challenge Scholarship and elimination of the financial need requirement, which should expand the program to serve about 35,000 students, Wills said.
"This plan will give the Academic Challenge Scholarship an 'extreme makeover' by changing the eligibility criteria and providing scholarships for students who graduate high school with a 2.5 grade point average, regardless of household income," he said.
Students also could become eligible for a scholarship by scoring a 19 or higher on the ACT. Scholarships would be available to both traditional and non-traditional students.
A 2.5 GPA also would be required to retain a scholarship from year to year.
The bill proposes a sliding scale of scholarship amounts. At the bottom of the scale, if lottery proceeds in a given year are between $54 million and $67.7 million, the scholarship amount would be $2,500 to attend a four-year institution and $1,250 to attend a two-year institution.
At the top of the scale, if the lottery brings in between $135.6 million and $149.2 million, the scholarship amount would be $5,500 to attend a four-year school and $2,750 to attend a two-year school.
Students already attending college on an Academic Challenge Scholarship would be entitled to an "upgrade" if the lottery scholarship amount is higher than what they have been receiving, Wills said.
Lottery-funded scholarships are expected to become available in the fall of 2010. Lottery tickets could go on sale later this year.
"Let me be very clear: We are not setting the amount of scholarship for the fall of 2010 (this year)," Wills said. "We can't. Because of annual sessions, we can't appropriate the $20 million in general revenue until next year, in our fiscal session."
Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who first proposed the constitutional amendment to create the lottery that voters approved in November, has proposed guaranteeing scholarships of $5,000 to attend a four-year school and $2,500 to attend a two-year school.
In a statement issued by his office Wednesday, Halter said he was pleased with much of the draft bill but saw room for improvement.
"Our vision remains providing maximum scholarship dollars to maximum numbers of Arkansans as quickly as possible in a fiscally responsible manner," Halter said.
Halter said the latest draft of the bill is closer to the initial vision of a simple, fair scholarship program.
Also Wednesday some Arkansas high school students, including ninth graders Randee Cox and Janae Mosbey, took a break from text books to tour the capitol. "When you come, it kind of makes you interested," Mosbey.
They witnessed a little magic too, legislators turning bills into laws.
House speaker Robbie Wills and others are working on the lottery bill, which will directly impact thousands of students.
"We have a tremendous opportunity with this lottery to transform Arkansas in terms of higher education," says Wills.
"We want bigger scholarships, we want tighter ethics, and we want a simple process. We satisfy those three things and I think and I think it's a big winner for the students and families and Arkansas," explains Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter.
"I think it's actually a good thing because there's a lot of people, because of the economy who can't afford to go to school because of the economy," says Mosbey.
"My mom says that if I want to go to school I have either get scholarship for school or join the military."
The bill adds the proceeds from the lottery to the $20 million already allocated to the Arkansas academic challenge program. Meaning and about 26,500 more possible scholarships.
Under this plan for the first time ever students already in college can apply for the Academic Challenge Scholarship for the remainder of their time on campus.
UALR student Libby Duke applied late and is paying for it.
"By that point it was too late I had already missed all the scholarship deadlines so I just had to pay in full," says Duke.
As the lottery is written now, more students with a minimum GPA of a 2.5 will qualify for state scholarships.