This week, the State House of Representatives moved closer to passing important lottery scholarship legislation designed to expand the opportunity for more Tennesseans to attend college.
"The original purpose of the lottery was to help send Tennesseans to college, " said Representative Frank Buck. "That purpose remains true today and years of running a surplus shows that we could be helping more people achieve the dream of a college degree."
In the Higher Education Subcommittee, a bill targeting the retention GPA of students who receive the HOPE Lottery Scholarship was approved and moved to the full House Education Committee for passage. Under the new legislation, the retention GPA for students would be revised from 3.0 to 2.75, helping to increase the retention rate among college freshmen and sophomores. Currently, more than 70% of incoming freshmen who qualify for the HOPE Lottery Scholarship lose it after the first year."
"With so many losing their scholarships, it's obvious that a change is needed," Buck said. "Working students and students who struggle when they first start college shouldn't be penalized the rest of their college career. A college degree is not just for the elite or the privileged, but for all those who want to attend higher education."
In an interview with WJLE Thursday, Buck says he supports revising the GPA from 3.00 to 2.75. " I understand there is a compromise in the making that will suggest that you can keep your lottery funding of the HOPE scholarship at 2.75 but that you must raise it up to be fully funded. That's one of the compromises that may be coming out. I really think we probably ought to lower it to 2.75 during the first year because a lot of these kids are just adjusting to college and a very high percentage of them have been losing that scholarship the first year. There are a lot of kids that don't come from a really good environment and they are not goofing off. They are trying. You know a 2.75 is almost a B average so I really think that is probably what we ought to do."
On another issue, Representative Buck says the state gasoline tax may have to be increased before too long. "There is no way around it. Keep in mind that the last time the gas tax was raised petroleum was selling at about $30 a barrel or less. It may have been around $25 a barrel. It is now $100 a barrel. The problem that you have is that every time you lay a yard of asphalt of repaving, that product is costing three or four times as much as it used to and the last time the gas tax was raised was around 1992. Not only that, but that bulldozer that builds the highway is using diesel fuel that costs three or four times as much as it used to cost. What choice do we have? if we're going to have good roads, at some point in time, we're going to have to (raise gas tax) whether we like it or not. Our costs keep going up."
Another costly project is the proposed replacement of Sligo bridge, which has state officials thinking that it would be more cost effective to remodel the existing bridge. Buck says bridge construction there will also cause traffic problems for a long period of time. "We've got the problem with Sligo bridge. That thing is $23 million. That's what it's going to cost to rebuild that bridge. They are now trying to decide whether or not they can remodel the floor for five or ten million dollars and save that old bridge, but again the problem you get into is if they do that, that thing will be closed for a year to two years. That would mean people in DeKalb County would have to drive 50 miles (alternate route) to get to the other side of Sligo bridge. What is making that bridge so terribly expensive is the fact that the water is so deep over there. It's not just the cost of the bridge per se. It is the cost of the footers that makes it so horribly expensive. The bridge is not unsafe yet. They tell me it is not ready to cave in but that at some point in time in the very near future we're either going to have to put a new deck on that thing or we're going to have to build a new bridge right beside it. They indicated to me that they looked at building a new bridge, but once they got into it, they began to realize that the footer to the bridge is so expensive, they then began to look at refurbishing the old one. The federal government gives so much for bridge replacement, but apparently the feds have cut back on the money as well. So it's a crisis not only at the state level but it's also on the federal level. But what are we going to do? We can't allow our bridges to fall in. They've had a net underneath Sligo bridge for about two years now to keep the concrete from falling on the fishermen's heads down there. They've also inspected Hurricane bridge which is the same design as the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota. The difference is that they were rebuilding that bridge or remodeling it in Minnesota and they put a bunch of building materials out there on that bridge and just stored it, which put a lot more weight on that bridge than it should have had. So they contributed to a very substantial degree to the failure of that bridge."
Buck also supports stronger penalties on scrap metal thieves and a law requiring a registry for the sale of precious metals. "We've got to do something to jack up the penalty. Whenever these thieves are going out here and stealing air conditioners out of churches, something has to be done. I don't know what they get for that copper, but it's not that much. But there are people who are having to pay $4,000 to $5,000 to replace their central air units and these thieves are getting, maybe $200. We must do the same kind of thing as we did with ephedrine and cold medicines. Whenever we made people register to buy that cold medicine, which was a necessary ingredient to make crystal meth and the pharmacies couldn't just sell it across the counter anymore, that cut down the meth business very substantially. We're going to have to do the same thing with precious metals. We have no choice."
On illegal immigration, Buck says he has mixed emotions." This is a terrible issue. Here we've got an estimated 20 million people in this country who are illegal aliens. We don't know who they are and where they are, but they have come across the border. We've got to get some kind of reasonable policy. I don't know what you do in these circumstances, as long as you have a situation like our nursery and tobacco business. If we didn't have these workers we couldn't ultimately grow the nursery stock that we do or get the tobacco in. We've got to develop some reasonable method because we need the labor in this country. Maybe we need to let them come in from Mexico on a visa but then make them go back home after the visa expires. Register them, find out who they are. There's bound to be some kind of middle ground that's workable in this case. If they're here on a visa and have to go back to Mexico before they can return, that's another possible solution. Make them go back home, then if they've been here, and have been a good citizen, not given us any trouble or been in our jails, then give them another visa to come back. But make them go home first. And for all those folks who have gotten into a lot of criminal trouble while they are here, they need to go back and stay down there."
Enforcing the borders of this country is a difficult task, but Buck says deporting illegals is also a problem, especially concerning those who have given birth to children while they're here. "Remember they have kids while they're here and our Constitution provides that a child born on American soil is an American citizen. They may have illegal alien parents, but once that baby is conceived and born in this country, they're an American citizen. Our border with Mexico is so long and we have so much shoreline, it's going to be very difficult to build a wall around America, it's just almost impossible."
Buck says he tends to agree with the Bush administration that a path to citizenship is probably the best solution. "I disagree with (President) Bush about a lot of things, but one of the compromises they were working on was to give them (illegal immigrants) a certain period of time to come in here and register and get legal. I don't think we ought to give them any gifts but we need to make them learn English and do all the kinds of things that naturalized citizens have to do."
Buck adds that one reason the Congress may be slow to act is because illegal immigrants are paying into the Social Security System. " A lot of them are using invalid or fake social security numbers, but withholding taxes are coming out of their paychecks. That money is going into that Social Security system and it ain't never coming back out again. Not to them it won't because with a bad or fake Social Security number, they will never get to draw any benefits. It's propping up our Social Security system and it's delaying the Congress from having to make a decision about the future solvency of Social Security."
Another top issue is proposed expansion of the Pre-Kindergarten program in Tennessee. Buck says the local Director of Schools and two school board members have expressed their opinions. "You know Governor Bredesen is just determined to do it. I've had the Superintendent and two board members come down there and indicate to me they think the money could be better spent other places. That's a very controversial matter. But whenever two board members and my Superintendent come by and tell me that the money could be better spent in other places, that causes me to stop and think. After all, they are in the trenches. They know more about education than I do. I'm going to check it out in these other counties. I want the opinion of the educators in the other counties. There is a very substantial dispute about that matter. It's also a matter of the wisest use of the money. My understanding is that the difference in those kids that have it (pre-k) and those that do not have it disappears somewhere around the third grade. Kids from disadvantaged homes probably do need that (pre-k) but for our kids, we kept books around all the time. Our children were exposed to books. Our grandchildren are exposed to books. There are some families that don't do that. But that's what Head Start is for. The truth is money is tight and sales tax revenues are down. We're going to have to make every wise use of every dollar we've got. We need to look at the pre-K program and make the best use we can of that money."