ATLANTA - Since its inception a decade ago, the HOPE scholarship has easily been the most popular government program in Georgia.
Using money from the lottery, about 700,000 students have gone to college free, thanks to the plan pushed by then-Gov. Zell Miller.
Lawmakers of all political stripes are nervously eyeing the future, however, saying that if something isn't done, the money for the scholarships could run out.
Last week, Senate budget writers suggested that a growing demand for the program could outpace the lottery money devoted to it as early as next year. Most leaders have backed away from those statements - saying that growing lottery earnings and a healthy "rainy-day" fund will protect the program in the short term.
They all agree that the money won't last forever.
"The HOPE situation is sort of like water," said Gov. Sonny Perdue, referring to plans for the state's water supply. "There's not an urgent situation at this time, but planning does need to take place."
In 1998-99, the state spent about $219 million on HOPE scholarships - sending about 145,000 students to college.
This year, the budget sets aside $440 million to help out almost 263,000 students.
As the number of students earning the scholarships increases, the cost of each scholarship is also rising. The cost of tuition goes up almost every year.
Over the years, the Legislature has expanded HOPE to include student fees that sometimes have little to do with education. Still, some in the state government say that concerns voiced recently by some lawmakers have been overblown and politically motivated.
"Those folks that are raising these concerns are not focused on where the fire is really burning in our budget," said Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who as a state senator sponsored Mr. Miller's legislation creating the program. "I wish there were more focus on the overall imbalance in our state budget - caused by tax collections dropping due to the national recession and 9-11 - than on this item in the budget that's doing perfectly well."
Mr. Taylor noted that proceeds from the Georgia Lottery continue to grow every year and that the state keeps about $200 million in a lottery reserve fund. Georgia is the only lottery state in the nation that didn't have a dip in spending on the games sometime during their first five years.
Lottery officials credit aggressive marketing and a competitive, corporate approach with keeping the state's games profitable.
"If you look at trends across the country, I can see why someone would say (a decrease) is going to happen in Georgia sometime," Georgia Lottery Corp. President Rebecca Paul said. "But all the things that are in place here have prevented it the first 10 years, and it's certainly our goal to prevent it for another 10 years and beyond."
In 2002, the lottery corporation turned over $726 million to the state. That money pays for HOPE, Georgia's pre-kindergarten program and school technology - although Mr. Perdue wants it to be reserved mainly for HOPE and pre-K.
Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Douglasville, is drafting a bill that would create a statewide commission on protecting the HOPE program.
Leaders in the Legislature say they'll ask Mr. Miller, who will retire from the U.S. Senate next year, to head the commission.
"We're in the early stages of getting the data that's needed," Mr. Perdue said, saying the state's approach needs to be fact-based, "not emotional, knee-jerk decisions."
Lawmakers say they already have some ideas.
Mr. Taylor said college fees need to be reviewed. State money is now being used sometimes to pay for athletic and activities fees. He said there may come a day when only the poorest students would have those nonessential fees paid by HOPE.
"We're now using HOPE dollars to cover some fees that were not a part of our original, 1992 covenant with the people of Georgia," Mr. Taylor said. "There may be some point in time where we do have to have an income limit - as it relates to fees only."
When it was created, HOPE was offered only to students from households earning $60,000 a year or less. It was soon expanded by Mr. Miller, then again by Gov. Roy Barnes. Other ideas for preserving the program have included dipping into the state's general fund - despite a current budget shortfall that has the Legislature slashing programs and considering higher taxes - or requiring some students to pay up front for their first semester, then be reimbursed.
Such a plan would save the state from paying tuition for students who attend college only briefly.
Regardless of their methods, lawmakers from both parties say they're devoted to preserving a program that's wildly popular - especially among middle-class, working families.
"We're not going to let the parents and students of Georgia down," Mr. Taylor said.
Important numbers regarding the Georgia Lottery and the HOPE Scholarship, which pays college tuition for Georgia students who maintain a B average:
Proceeds from the Georgia Lottery turned over to the state to pay for HOPE, pre-kindergarten and other education programs:
1998: $555 million
1999: $646 million
2000: $683 million
2001: $691 million
2002: $726 million
Reach Doug Gross at (404) 681-1701 or email@example.com.