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Soda tax sought for scholarships


HELENA (AP) - Student government lobbyists have come up with an idea to provide a $1,000-a-year renewable scholarship to a Montana public college for nearly every Montana high school student.

The students persuaded several key legislators to co-sponsor a bill that would refer the scholarship program, supported by a tax on soda pop, to Montana voters for approval in the November 2004 election.

House Bill 760, to create the Montana Citizen Scholarship Program, was introduced Friday and referred to the House Taxation Committee.

Its chief sponsor is Rep. Tim Dowell, the Democratic minority whip. The 18 co-sponsors include such prominent Republicans as House Speaker Doug Mood, Majority Leader Roy Brown and House Appropriations Chairman Dave Lewis.

It was Lewis, in fact, who suggested that the student lobbyists consider a tax on soft drinks to pay for a scholarship program, said Will Hammerquist, lobbyist for MSU students.

''He said there is a natural connection because students drink a lot of pop,'' Hammerquist told the Great Falls Tribune. Hammerquis has been working on the idea with Sara Cobler, a lobbyist for the University of Montana.

Eric Feaver, president of the MEA/MFT teachers union, suggested a referendum to give voters a chance to support Montana college students.

Hammerquist took it from there, researching and combining successful programs from two other states.

Georgia is seeing more of its high school students go to college and more stay at in-state schools since it adopted a similar scholarship program, he said. Arkansas implemented a soft-drink tax to support schools in 1993 and voters decided overwhelmingly to keep the tax the next year.

To be eligible, a high school student would have to be a Montana resident, maintain a 2.5 grade point average (C-plus) in their senior year and complete 24 hours of community service in their senior year. Nine out of 10 high school students, or about 4,000 a year, could be eligible, Hammerquist said.

Home-schooled students could qualify retroactively at the end of their freshman year of college.


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