Thursday, April 03, 2003

The Lottery Scrap

The Commercial Appeal has been doing a fair job of keeping stories about the lottery legislation near the top of their reporting priorities, although the Iraqi War still dominates everything to an unwelcome degree. You can find pretty good stories here, here, here, here and here.

That last story is especially good, as it exposes one of several fault lines in the geography of the lottery legislation struggles. Memphis Democrats rightly worry that students from here will find themselves below the cut-off for grades if the State adopts the 3.0 GPA minimum proposed. Although poor Memphians will be "taxed" to a very heavy degree (or will buy lots of lottery tickets if you're not a Demo-speak person), we stand to lose out when the money comes back. It's causing out legislators to press for lower standards for awarding lottery scholarships.

Private colleges are also pressing for their "fair" share of lottery scholarship money. Christian Brothers, Rhodes and others have a stake there.

But the most dangerous fault line is between Senator Steve Cohen and Governor Phil Bredesen. Cohen long ago pegged his name and reputation to the lottery. He turned into a lying, scheming weasel during the campaign, making extravagant claims for lottery money, vilifying or ridiculing his opponents blithely. He wants to retire soon and needs to have the lottery concluded before his term ends.

Governor Bredesen, on the other hand, is approaching the scholarships and the lottery money with the skepticism and "go slow" attitude that has marked his administration from day one. He's spoken to the two major players for running the State's lottery and both have set low projections ($80 and $120 million, if I recall correctly) for revenues the first year. Bredesen wants to see how much money a lottery generates before we begin to make promises, and start handing it out. Wise moves.

He also wants a larger hand in appointing the people on the lottery oversight board. Cohen would like the Legislature to have the majority of seats, with the Governor having three; the Governor would like to control the majority of appointments. I tend to agree with Cohen here. Requiring majority support for appointees means public, amenable and widely-supported candidates are favored. Bredesen's model sounds like a set-up for favoritism and corruption.

But Cohen has reverted to his campaign rhetoric in his opposition to the Governor. He's already accused the Governor of having an "under the table" motive for his caution. His contempt and dismissiveness surface constantly. It's unseemly, but it's standard Cohen.

I almost shudder to hear myself say this about Bredesen, but during this extended honeymoon between the Legislature and the Governor, I hope the Governor's view continues to hold sway. We should go slow in considering what the standards are for awarding and keeping lottery scholarships, and they should be challenging, not condescending. We should wait until we have a clear idea of what revenues will be before we set loose a horde of students on our cash-strapped college and university system.

Cohen's route would likely lead to further disaster for Tennessee. Bredesen's consistent application of his philosophy of regaining control of State spending is the way to go.

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