Cohen Hits "Tennessee Promise" Legislation as State House Committee Signs Off On It

Congressman who, as state Senator, created the Tennessee lottery, says Haslam proposal means "slow and certain death" for Hope Scholarships.

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Even as Governor Bill Haslam’s “Tennessee Promise” legislation— embodied in HB2491 by McCormick/SB2471 by Norris — which would transform the way lottery revenues are applied, escaped a week’s worth of deferrals and moved by acclamation through the state House Education Committee on Tuesday, one interested party renewed his strenuous objections to it.

This was 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, the founder of the Tennessee lottery, the man who, as a state Senator, lobbied non-stop for it and finally got it approved, as a vehicle for Tennessee’s “Hope Scholarships,” in 2002. Lottery tickets began being sold statewide in the next year, 2003.

Haslam’s proposal would transform the way lottery revenues are applied, tapping the lottery fund , to the tune of $34 million annually, to pay for free tuition in the state’s two-year community colleges for all high school graduates. It would also abandon the current $4,000 level for Hope scholarships at four-year colleges and substitute a two-tiered scholarship system, with $3500 annually for freshman and sophomores and $4500 for juniors and seniors.

Tennessee Promise has received abundant praise statewide; it has also come in for harsh criticism — especially from assorted spokespersons for established four-year colleges, who see the governor’s program as undermining traditional higher education.

Cohen, who has let his displeasure with the proposal be known, fired another broadside at it in the wake of Tuesday’s action in the House. He issued a press release that, after noting that the Hope Scholarships were the product of long study and expert testimony, said in part:

“...Since its creation, the HOPE Scholarship’s value has diminished as tuition has increased—and this plan will cut them even further. All future lottery revenue gains will flow to the Governor’s free-tuition, no-standards community college program, and the HOPE Scholarship will fade into irrelevance when it should be growing to match the rising costs of attending college. It is wrong to cut lottery scholarships to create a massive new government program, and it is wrong to siphon $300 million meant to strengthen HOPE Scholar
ships for the governor’s pet project. Doing so will sentence HOPE Scholarships to a slow and certain death.

“Any changes to HOPE Scholarship should be based on expert recommendations and evidence—not politics. When the experts have weighed in, the General Assembly will find that the best use of these funds would be to strengthen HOPE by extending more benefits to middle-class and low-income students and keeping them here in Tennessee.”

The “Tennessee Promise” legislation will be considered in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, and the House version goes next to Government Operations Committee.

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