- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature proposal to create a program that would cover tuition at two-year colleges for any high school graduate is headed to his desk after passing the House on Tuesday.

The 87-8 approval comes a day after the Senate approved the legislation 30-1.

Called “Tennessee Promise,” the legislation is a cornerstone of the Republican governor’s “Drive to 55” campaign to improve the state’s graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.

“The governor is grateful for the General Assembly’s overwhelming support of the Tennessee Promise,” Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe said in a statement issued after the vote. “It is a bold promise that will make college a reality for more high school graduates.”

After graduation from the two-year colleges, students who choose to attend a four-year school will be able to do so as juniors. Florida, Mississippi and Oregon are considering creating similar programs.

Haslam wants to pay for the program, expected to cost about $34 million annually, by using $300 million in excess lottery reserve funds and join it with a $47 million endowment. The state has about $400 million in reserves.

During debate Tuesday, some Republican lawmakers grumbled that the plan is an entitlement program.

However, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who carried the proposal for the governor, listed several things students will be required to do to stay in it. They include participating in mandatory meetings to make sure the students are meeting requirements, working with a mentor, maintaining a 2.0 grade point average, and community involvement.

“This is not just another entitlement program,” said McCormick, R-Chattanooga. “They have a stringent set of hoops to go through.”

There was also some opposition to a part of the plan that would lower the current $4,000 lottery scholarship amount at four-year colleges to $3,500 for freshmen and sophomores, but increase it to $4,500 for juniors and seniors.

The move is meant to encourage students to consider going to two-year colleges first.

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley proposed an amendment to return the lottery scholarships to their original amounts, but the legislation failed.

Overall, lawmakers lauded the proposal, calling it an opportunity to help some of the state’s poorest students who might not otherwise be able to afford a higher education.

“It’s going to give a lot of citizens a chance to get an education,” said former House Speaker Kent Williams, an independent from Elizabethton.

Those voting against the plan were Republican Reps. Joe Carr of Lascassas, Glen Casada of Franklin, Jeremy Durham of Franklin, Andy Holt of Dresden, Judd Matheny of Tullahoma, Cameron Sexton of Crossville, Billy Spivey of Lewisburg and Rick Womick of Murfreesboro. Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald was the lone no vote in the Senate.

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