Because the people who take a chance on the Arkansas lottery have failed to live up to expectations, students in the state will have to pay a larger share of their college expenses.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Legislature, having dealt with the “more urgent” issues of guns and abortion, will now turn its attention to cutting taxes for the wealthier citizens — the “job creators.”
With fewer young people able to afford college, the jobs will need to be in the service sector.
First, let’s deal with the lottery scholarships issue. Gov. Mike Beebe last week signed House Bill 1295, which restructures the program because lottery revenue is falling short of projections. The law will drop the annual scholarship amount for a first-year freshman entering a 4-year university from the original $5,000 to $2,000.
No, it’s not because tuition and fees at those institutions have gone down or that we don’t need more college graduates. It’s that the state gambled on the lottery and failed to win the grand prize.
That $2,000 is only for the first year. The program will adopt a tiered approach, meaning that a sophomore who meets the standards to keep the scholarship will receive $3,000; a junior, $4,000; and a senior, $5,000.
Therefore, the lottery scholar will lose $6,000 in financial aid over his or her four years.
On the other hand, a freshman entering a two-year college will get $2,000 a year, instead of the original $2,500 grant — a loss of only $1,000. Let’s put aside the unfairness of that for the time being.
The original scholarship levels were paid only to students getting lottery scholarships under the first year of the program. The numbers were revised downward to $4,500 and $2,250, respectively, for the second and third years.
Some 34,000 Arkansas students have benefitted from the lottery scholarship program, and most of them would otherwise have received little or no financial aid. Many would not have entered college.
Now we’re taking a step backward.
But here’s a novel thought: Why can’t the state make up some of the difference in the lottery scholarship shortfall with general revenue? Who says the lottery must be our only significant means of investing in the higher education of our young people?
The state provides only $20 million a year in general revenue for college scholarships, while the lottery generated nearly $98 million last year.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, is urging his colleagues to come up with an arbitrary $150 million in tax cuts during the current session. He wants to overhaul the state income tax, which he says is unfair, and lower the capital gains tax. He didn’t say anything about Gov. Beebe’s proposal to reduce further the sales tax on groceries, which would help the people who need help the most.
And Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, has introduced bills (HB 1585 and 1586) to cut the state income tax and the estate tax, both of which would mainly benefit the upper middle class and upper class. The legislation offers no suggestions about what expenses should be cut to pay for his proposals.
Obviously, it can’t be public education, or the lawmakers might find themselves in contempt of court, and they wouldn’t want the bad publicity from turning prison inmates loose. That leaves only human services and higher education.
A statesman would see that Arkansas benefits more by investing that money in producing more college graduates. That wouldn’t hurt the “job creators” either.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.