Rep. McCormick: Lottery Surplus Should Go For Building New Schools - And Response

Wednesday, January 16, 2008 - by Rep. Gerald McCormick
Rep. Gerald McCormick
Rep. Gerald McCormick

This letter is in response to Nashville state Rep. Gary Odom’s article regarding the Tennessee Lottery. I will resist the temptation to argue based on the partisan nature of his charges although hearing Gary state an aversion to “pork barrel” spending is about as believable as Colonel Sanders coming out in favor of vegetarianism.

The Tennessee Lottery was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly and voted on by the people of Tennessee several years ago. The Constitutional Amendment clearly states that there are only three areas where the money is to be spent. One is “to provide financial assistance for citizens of this state to attend post-secondary institutions within this state”, Two is for “capital outlay projects for K-12 educational facilities”, and Three is for “Early learning programs and after school programs”.

The legislature started a program for the scholarships first. We have since had too many students lose those scholarships for a number of reasons and there is going to be a lot of debate over the next few months to decide how to correct that. Good people on both sides of the political aisle will find, and hopefully implement, solutions based on feedback from our constituents.

Two years ago we skipped number Two in the Constitutional Amendment and went straight to Number Three when we funded a Pre-K program with lottery money based on the governor’s recommendation. That is a program that we continue to monitor for results and to make sure it does not turn into a state “baby sitting” program. Based on my personal visits to some pre-K classrooms in Ooltewah and Birchwood I have hopes that it will help prepare some young children for the higher grades with a better chance at success. If it fails to do so then we will have to act accordingly.

Now that the Lottery is sitting on an estimated $400,000,000 reserve there are many of us in the legislature that contend we should fulfill the promise of the Constitutional Amendment mandated by the people by going back to number Two, the capital outlay section of the law. Simply stated, the legislation introduced last year by Rep. David Hawk would use a portion of the lottery reserve to fund a one-time capital outlay to build new schools and repair some old ones. That is something that would directly benefit Hamilton County with our well documented facility issues. An additional $6,500,000 would be available by this summer to help finish projects such as the new schools and additions under construction as well as deferred maintenance on some of our older buildings. Of course, the money would not be available every year if lottery revenues lag to a point that the reserve fell below $250,000,000. This is much more responsible than making expensive promises now that future legislatures are forced to fund. It has the added benefit of lessening the pressure for local property tax increases so it will benefit every Tennessean instead of just those with kids in school.

There are a number of improvements that need to be made to our Lottery in Tennessee. The best way to make those improvements are by working across the partisan divide, having honest discussions, and making decisions in the interest of citizens and tax payers instead of politicians. I would ask your readers to contact their state representatives and senators to give their opinions. The future of our state depends on it.

Rep. Gerald McCormick

* * *

This post is in response to the current predicament the Tennessee General Assembly has as to what to do with some of the $400 million reserve from the Tennessee Lottery. My opinion particularly stems from two letters written by different state legislators. The first is from Democratic representative Gary Odom (D-Nashville), currently the majority leader in the state House of Representatives. The second is a response to Rep. Odom's letter by Rep. Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), also of the state House of Representatives.

Basically, there is a proposal (I first heard about it from Rep. Eric Watson) set to go before the General Assembly that would make reserve lottery money available for K-12 school construction. A $250 million threshold would be set to secure the lottery scholarship fund, and anything extra would go to "capital outlay projects for K-12 educational facilities." The money would be available to local school systems on a grant basis. The thought process is that this will allow local school systems to free up funds that would otherwise be used for "capital outlay projects." The lottery reserve is expected to reach $425 million by June of 2008.

The largest opposition comes from the people who think the money should strictly be used for scholarships. But according to Rep. McCormick, the constitutional amendment passed several years ago clearly states three areas where the money can be spent. One is "to provide financial assistance for citizens of this state to attend post-secondary institutions within this state", two is for "capital outlay projects for K-12 educational facilities", and three is for "early learning programs and after school programs".

The scholarship program was funded from the beginning. Two years ago, the state skipped the second area of spending and funded a Pre-K program with lottery money based on Governor Bredesen's recommendations.

Local activist and Hamilton County School Board member, Rhonda Thurman, also opposes the plan. She argues that the proposed $175 million of reserve funds would not go very far after being split between 136 school districts. I see her point, but I don't interpret it that way. According to the plan I read, the money would be given to school districts through a grant process.

Another, but related issue concerning the lottery money, is the number of college students that lose their scholarship after their Grade Point Average falls below 3.0. Ms. Thurman also mentions this, as does Rep. Odom. In fact, Rep. Odom says that "75% of college students who achieved a grade point average of 3.0 in high school lose their scholarships because their grades in college fall below the 3.0 GPA. He favors a proposal that would lower the minimum GPA to 2.75 or even 2.50.

Are you kidding me? Rep. Odom even says, "The lottery scholarship was never intended to be an academic scholarship; it was intended to be a way to help more Tennesseans get a college education." That's the most ridiculous statement I've ever heard. It's a prime example of how today's Democrats represent the modern Socialist movement. If it's not an academic scholarship, then what is it? Free money?

I favored the Tennessee Lottery because it was going to provide students with money to help them go to college. But there has to be a standard - a level of achievement that rewards our students for working hard and making good grades.

This is a lot like a chapter in Glenn Beck's new book, An Inconvenient Book, that explains how today's society needs to "stop giving out 14th-place trophies...When you finish 14th, you don't deserve a trophy. What you do deserve - and what you need - is a lesson in how the real world works. When you don't perform, you get nothing. The phrase is 'To the victor go the spoils' not 'Spoil those who aren't the victor.' If we continue to shelter our kids the way we do, we'll have a generation of adults who can't handle the financial, emotional, and political struggles of everyday life."

You know what Rep. Odom? I'm 23 years old. I'm in college. My parents pay out of their own pocket for my tuition because I began college the year before the HOPE scholarship was created, and I went off to school out of state for my first year. In 2006 I started my own business here in Chattanooga, and I continue to go to school full time - with my parents paying for 100% of my tuition and books. Last semester I made the Dean's list - good enough to qualify for the HOPE scholarship. But guess what? I can't get it. But you want to give all of these other students a pass because they can't keep up their grades.

I have a night class this semester on Monday nights. It's a two and a half hour class because we only meet once each week. About half way through the period, our professor gives us a break to use the bathroom, get a drink of water, or do whatever else we need to do. At least a third of the students pack up their stuff and leave for the night. Those are the students that qualified for the HOPE scholarship out of high school. Those are the students who are not putting forth the effort it takes to maintain a 3.0 GPA. Those are the students you want to continue to give scholarship money to, while students like myself and the other two-thirds of the class actually give a darn.

You don't have a clue what college is like in 2008, so don't bother talking like you do. We need better representation throughout our entire state on issues like this - issues that concern my generation and my children's generation. That's the whole point I started this get people my age out to vote. We need a movement for representation that will support today's society.

Good for you, Rep. McCormick and Rep. Watson, for making an effort to better our educational systems. I wish we had more representatives like you.

Kevin Burke

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