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Plan to reduce HOPE scholarships passes Georgia Senate, may reach Governor's desk soon

2:10 AM, Mar 9, 2011   |    comments
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Video: Here's the Senate HOPE Plan

Georgia State University students

ATLANTA -- After a few changes late Tuesday afternoon, the legislation to reduce HOPE Scholarships passed the Georgia Senate, even as about a dozen protestors shouted "Kill the bill" from their seats in the Senate gallery during the Senate debate.  They were ejected from the Capitol.

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Major Provisions, As Passed By GA Senate

1.  Full HOPE Scholarships for:

  • All GA High School Graduates with 3.7 GPA, 1200 SAT
  • The Top Two Students in Each GA High School, Each Year

2.  Partial HOPE Scholarships (90% of Tuition in Fall 2011, but a higher or lower percentage in subsequent years) for:

  • GA High School Graduates with 3.0 GPA

3.  No Payments Anymore for Books, Fees

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"This is a business issue," said Sen. Jim Butterworth, a Republican from Cornelia and the governor's floor leader. "Our goal is to save the HOPE scholarship" which is based on Georgia Lottery proceeds. 

Those lottery proceeds are no longer enough to pay for 1), the increasing tuitions at Georgia colleges and universities and 2), the rising numbers of students going to Georgia colleges and universities who qualify for, and are receiving, the HOPE money. 

The measure passed 35-20 along party lines in the GOP-controlled Senate.  It now goes back to the GOP-controlled House, which passed the original version last week.

Negotiations between Republicans and Democrats were held under the Gold Dome ahead of Tuesday afternoon's Senate debate on Gov. Deal's HOPE scholarship plan.

As a result of the negotiations, at least one of the suggested Democratic changes championed by Sen. Jason Carter (D-42) made it into the bill that finally passed the Senate Tuesday afternoon. That change is the one that will allow the top two students at each Georgia high school -- the valedictorian and salutatorian -- to be eligible to receive a full HOPE Scholarship.

11Alive News learned that Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-21), and a House member, Rep. Brooks Coleman (R-97), along with Governor Deal's chief of staff, among other officials, had discussed making some slight adjustments to the governor's plan after negotiating with Democrats.

READ THE BILL: House Bill 326
FOLLOW LIVE: Senate Chamber Live Video Stream
Complete HOPE Coverage: Losing HOPE 11Alive News Special

Carter had originally proposed that the top 3 percent of graduates in each school get a full ride on HOPE, which would mean they'd be competing academically against their fellow students in their own school, rather than against all students statewide.  That idea was later changed to the top two students in each high school, only.  

RELATED: Ga. Senate Democrats offer alternative HOPE proposal

One thing that was not up for negotiation is a family income cap -- no HOPE scholarships for children from wealthy families -- which Democrats support.  Democrats also expressed concerns over the governor's proposed SAT requirements.

RELATED: HOPE measure passes State House 152-22

The proposed cuts to the HOPE scholarship are different from the proposed cuts to the HOPE pre-kindergarten program.

Butterworth, who is also chairman of the Senate Higher Education Comittee, said the final bill will go to Gov. Deal for his signature "pretty quickly."

The House is expected to take up the bill Thursday. Once the House and Senate formally agree to a final version of the bill and the governor signs it, it would take effect this fall, and would include current and future HOPE recipients.

"It's bad," said Senate Democratic Leader Robert Brown of Macon immediately after the Senate vote, "because it basically robs from the poor and educates the rich."

The plan that Brown and other Democrats support would cost only as much as the lottery takes in every year for HOPE, Brown said. 

The scholarships would go first to academically-qualified students who actually need scholarships, based on their family incomes. 

The income cap would rise and fall every year based on lottery revenues that year.

"If [lottery proceeds] have enough money to pay for the rich, you pay for the rich," Brown said.  "But if you don't have enough money to pay for the rich, you simply keep it focused on those [academically-qualified students] who need it the most."

Brown also spoke of the lottery customers' role in the HOPE scholarships.  "The evidence is there," he said, that the poorest Georgians are the biggest lottery customers. 

"When you look at who plays the lottery, and you see where that money comes from, and then you see who goes to school on that money... is [that] not robbing from the poor and giving to the rich?.... Simply stop [paying for] those children from families who can pay for their own education, and the HOPE scholarship will be sound.  But you don't continue to just take this money from people who are economically deprived -- and that's who plays it -- and give it to people who do not need it."

Butterworth said the lottery is not a tax that people are forced to pay but a game that is voluntary to play; and he said, in effect, that the incomes of people who buy lottery tickets is not the issue. 

The lottery provides a scholarship, he said, not an entitlement.

"You have to remember that the goal of HOPE -- "Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally" -- that's the goal of the HOPE scholarship.  And so that means attracting the best and brightest to stay here, to not leave the state, but to stay here," and go to college and establish themselves with families and careers in Georgia, "and to make sure that the engine of Georgia's economy continues to run as best as it possibly can."

Brown said he and his fellow Democrats are all but admitting defeat on the HOPE changes they wanted -- this year.

"We may not win it in this General Assembly, but we will bring it back time and time again until we're in a position to get a better bill."

Butterworth said the reason he expects the House and Senate to agree quickly on a final version of the bill for the Republican governor to sign is that GOP leaders from both chambers -- and each chamber has a Republican majority -- have continually worked together crafting the legislation, from the time it was in the House, all the way through the Senate committee and then during Tuesday's floor debate in the full Senate when the Senate debated and voted on several amendments from Republicans and Democrats, rewriting portions of the entire bill during a process that consumed the better part of the day.

So a conference committee, to negotiate a final version, may be not be required except for minor tweaking.

"Those negotiations have been on-going as we have progressed," Butterworth said.  "The House leadership has been, for lack of a better term, in the loop as we have proceeded" in the Senate.  "I am confident that there will be very little change to what we have gotten to and where we are right now.... We've coordinated with the governor's office, we've coordinated with the House leadership, and we've coordinated with the Senate leadership.  We've been very busy."

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