NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, is urging lawmakers to deal with the state's "insolvent" lottery-funded college scholarship fund.
Sen. Kyle's comment came after a Senate panel refused to adopt his plan to plug a $13 million program shortfall.
"This is the first step to reducing scholarships and denying accessibility for thousands of Tennessee students who depend on the lottery scholarship as their sole opportunity to attend college," Sen. Kyle said in a news release Thursday. "This inaction threatens the ability to keep our promise to these students. The time to act is now."
His bill would shift from $56 million and $91.4 million in lottery funds, set aside two years ago for the $90 million Energy Efficient Schools Initiative, back to the scholarship fund's reserve. The initiative, a GOP brainchild, was intended to provide construction grants or loans to K-12 schools to promote energy efficiency and savings.
Sen. Kyle's bill failed Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee on a 4-4-1 party line vote, with all four Republicans voting "no" and a fifth Republican abstaining. All four Democrats, including Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, voted for it.
Committee Chairman Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, did not return a call Thursday afternoon.
With the scholarship fund shortfall projected to hit $30 million or more in the fiscal year beginning July 1, the Senate and House speakers have appointed lawmakers to a task force that will tackle long-term problems.
Sen. Kyle argued before the committee that more immediate action was needed and that the bill should be sent to the Finance Committee. He sought to portray the issue as a collision between the lottery's original main purpose -- college scholarships -- and the relatively new K-12 energy efficiency program.
TVA Senior Vice President of Marketing Jim Keiffer, an Energy Efficient Schools Council member, told senators that "we have made a lot of progress with the program," noting that more than $9.5 million in grants to various schools have been "promised and are in the process of being moved as we speak."
Moreover, he said, funding for energy efficiency loans also has been promised, although rules regulating the process still are being finalized. A $3 million federal grant, meanwhile, depends on matching funds from the energy efficiency fund, he said.
"If this bill by Sen. Kyle passes, what does it do?" Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, who had helped champion the K-12 energy efficiency program, asked Mr. Keiffer.
About $45 million could disappear, Mr. Keiffer said.
"There's a lot of dollars and a lot of schools which haven't received any funds yet," he said. "As I understand it, $45 million goes away. So we obviously wouldn't be able to do as many projects."
Taking the money away "would be quite confusing, I would think" for local school districts, state education department lobbyist Bruce Opie warned.