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State panel approves plan to offer more scholarships

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ At the request of the Senate's top leader, lawmakers on Wednesday fast tracked a bill to expand the number of Oklahoma college students qualifying for free tuition.

The measure, by state Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, would raise from $50,000 to $75,000 the income level to qualify for scholarships under the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program.

Under the program, high school students receive tuition scholarships if they enroll in the program, make good grades and stay out of trouble.

Normally, the title is removed from appropriations measures to slow their progress through the legislative process so more work can be done on the overall budget. A bill cannot be enacted into law without a title.

Morgan asked members of the Senate Subcommittee on Education to make an exception and keep the title on the scholarship bill, calling it a cornerstone of the Senate agenda.

The panel approved the bill on a voice vote and sent it to the full appropriations committee for consideration.

The measure will cost an extra $10 million when fully implemented in four years.

Senate leaders say they want to be able to send the OHLAP legislation to the House by the end of February.

``We should send the signal early in this session that we intend to invest in Oklahoma's future,'' Morgan said. ``We need to say to Oklahoma that we are looking beyond the fall campaigns and focusing, instead, on the future.''

The OHLAP program is funded partly through gaming revenues that have not come in as expected, forcing the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education to seek a $4.6 million supplemental appropriation to fund this year's program.

Sponsors say there is plenty of revenue available for appropriation to expand the scholarship program to fund scholarships for more children from middle class homes.

Morgan said the bill is important to the state's future, saying there ``is no better way to invest in the next generation than offering greater educational opportunities to more of our students.''
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