From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Opposition to lottery bill found in the details.

In Lottery on 26 February 2009 at 9:25 pm

By this point, plans for lottery-funded scholarships, which were unveiled at a three-hour working session Wednesday evening, have been pretty well publicized. There will be a formula that makes the scholarship award amount contingent on lottery proceeds (see Under the Dome for a chart); with a few exceptions, anyone who has a 2.5 GPA or scores a 19 on the ACT will be eligible, regardless of family income; 11,700 freshmen are expected to earn a scholarship each year (Under the Dome again for a powerpoint with more projections); a current $20 million annual appropriation for the Academic Challenge Scholarship will be pooled with the new lottery cash; and in general the legislature can continue to tinker with award amounts and eligibility requirements until it hits on an optimal formula.

At the Wednesday session, many agreed that the draft legislation, which is subject to revision, had done a good job of being inclusive. But in a bill this large, there are sure to be unhappy customers. And while no one has expressed strong opposition to the bill, not everyone is getting what they want.

Start with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the lottery creator. For the most part he has received the draft legislation warmly. But he raised some questions at the meeting yesterday. Halter’s prognostication for the lottery’s success has been exceedingly optimistic, as he has predicted revenues twice above those forecast by the Department of Finance and Administration. In keeping with that attitude — at least from a fiscal standpoint — he said yesterday that legislators would be making a mistake to assume that all people eligible for scholarships will take advantage. (Current projections assume 100% participationĀ  among eligible students.) If the legislature over-predicts the number of participants, then money that could be going to higher awards will end up languishing in a trust fund.

Halter brought up other fiscal concerns. He did not like that some lottery money is to pay administrative costs. He also asked the legislature to increase the $20 million Academic Challenge Appropriation, which is currently funded at the same level every year; if expanding costs bring Academic Challenge expenditures beyond $20 million then the lottery scholarship money would fill the gap. That would violate the constitutional stipulation that the lottery supplement, not supplant, current scholarship dollars.

(Read on after the jump: some have problems with academic provisions, and one issue in particular could cause a battle.)

Halter brought up academic concerns as well. Currently the legislation contains a provision that impacts students attending high schools that exhibit grade inflation. If a student goes to such a school, she can only qualify by ACT, not by GPA. Halter told the working group that it cannot be assumed that these students will achieve the required test score. The grade inflation clause will most likely affect low-income schools whose students tend to perform lower on standardized tests, he said.

Of course, Halter has no vote on the measure. But others that do had some of the same academic concerns. Besides the grade inflation issue, some worried that a provision limiting state scholarship coverage to 130 credit hours would discourage students from entering programs that take five years to complete. Other disliked a requirement that scholarship recipients take the Smart Core curriculum, a set of courses that focuses on humanities, social sciences and math. Sen. Joyce Elliot said that if Smart Core is a prerequisite for a scholarship, then the legislature should explicitly require all students to take the curriculum in order to ensure that everyone is equally prepared for eligibility.

It should not be forgotten that yesterday’s meeting was informative; those with concerns were reacting to a document they had received only an hour before. But are there any provisions likely to cause an open fight over the bill?

One may be that students at two-year schools receive only half as much money as those at four-year schools. Sen. Larry Teague has been vocal about his opposition to that part of the bill. He argues that two-year students actually need more help to pay for college, considering that many support a family and work on the side. He explicitly told the working group yesterday that he will fight the disparity.

Sen. Teague later told me that he hopes his concerns will be addressed behind closed doors. But if they’re not, he said, he and several other rural legislators are prepared to raise their voices.


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