Senate Democrats seek HOPE income cap



ATLANTA — Senate Demo­crats say Georgia’s HOPE scholarship is still in crisis and are warning their Republican colleagues that last year’s GOP-led overhaul of the program is a “failed reform” that is paying for thousands fewer students to go to college.

On Tuesday, Democrats – who hold the minority in the Legis­lature – filed several bills aimed at revisiting at HOPE scholarship this session. Among their proposals is a bill that would restore an income eligibility cap and another that would make the top 3 percent of all high school graduates eligible for the new Zell Miller Scholarship, named for the program’s patriarch.

“A HOPE plan that reduces the number of students who get degrees can only be called a failure, both for our students and our economy,” said Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, a leading opponent of last year’s legislation who has filed two of this year’s HOPE-related bills. “I believe in my heart that this does not have to be a partisan issue.”

Last year’s sweeping changes were a directive of Gov. Nathan Deal, who made “saving HOPE” the top priority of his first year in office. Republicans painted a dire picture, threatening the extinction of HOPE absent immediate legislative action. Opponents’ objections were largely drowned out.

The latest estimates from the Georgia Student Finance Com­mission, which administers HOPE, showed typical students at the University of Georgia would see a 38 percent reduction in their lottery-funded award between now and mid-2015. By then, the student would have to pay $2,732 in expenses every semester. That student’s HOPE scholarship would cover the remaining $2,461 in costs.

HOPE, along with pre-kindergarten, is funded by the state lottery. The cuts were made because lottery proceeds haven’t kept pace with rising tuition and skyrocketing enrollment and the program was set to go broke.

Senate Higher Education Chairman Buddy Carter said Tuesday that the Legislature “accomplished a lot” on HOPE last year and that he does not agree with the Democratic proposals.

“A lot of them were the some of the same proposals from last year,” he said. “I do not feel that putting a salary cap on the HOPE scholarship helps us keep the best and brightest in our state.”

Still, Carter said he is open to looking at possible changes to the HOPE scholarship and said “we’re always tweaking every program.”

Earlier this month, Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-Locust Grove, proposed legislation that would divert unclaimed state lottery funds to HOPE and pre-K. Currently, unclaimed money is sent back to the lottery pool for future prizes or programs related to treating gambling addiction.