Originally created 03/07/03

Dems plan to work on restoring HOPE scholarships to budget



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As House members prepare to debate the state's $5.1 billion budget next week, Democrats say they will focus on restoring funding to HOPE and needs-based scholarships.

Each year, the General Assembly must reallocate proceeds from the South Carolina Education Lottery, which began operating just over a year ago. This year the battle centers on scholarships.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for writing the state's budget, did not provide funding for the HOPE college scholarships.

The committee looked to the lottery spending package to help patch a budget with a projected shortfall of up to $1 billion.

Under the proposed budget, $5.8 million was cut from HOPE scholarships. Those awards cover $2,650 in tuition and books for 1,926 students. The committee also cut lottery spending on need-based grants for low-income students.

Last year's budget said the scholarships were funded for that year, not future years. That's also the way they will appear in the current budget, said House Ways and Means Chairman Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston.

A big factor in the decision to cut was a reduction in lottery revenue, Harrell said.

The state had $259 million in lottery money to spend in the current fiscal year. But this year, the lottery is expected to generate only about $180 million, Harrell said.

Cuts in lottery money should be spread out more equitably, said House Minority Leader James Smith, D-Columbia.

Republicans "can't and should not" take away funding for the HOPE scholarships, because these scholarships affect "students who can least afford to make up the difference," Smith said.

"It will be a central and primary focus of House Democrats next week to restore HOPE scholarships," Smith said.

HOPE scholarships are not completely off the table, Harrell said.

"There are a lot of conversations about trying to include it before we finish," Harrell said. "It isn't that people don't want to fund it. It's that we have about $80 million less in lottery revenue than we had last year. It's all a matter of trying to make sure that we fund the things in the lottery that the majority of the House and Senate want to see funded."

Committee members chose to cut the HOPE scholarship because it is the only one that has alternatives, Harrell said.

HOPE scholarship recipients are required to have a B average. And currently, under the LIFE scholarships, students with a B average can go to tech school and have tuition covered with all credits required to be transferable to a four-year institution, Harrell said.

But the HOPE scholarship provides an opportunity for students "who are good college material to get their foot in the door," said Charlie FitzSimons, spokesman for the state Commission on Higher Education.

College students and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held rallies this week to voice opposition to cuts in scholarships.

Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the Columbia chapter of the NAACP, said a majority of the students affected by the loss of scholarships will be black.

Twenty-eight percent of the HOPE scholarship recipients are black, according to FitzSimons.

"It's unconscionable what this body did," Randolph said. "Those who are in need the most get the least."

Adam Page, a member of the University of South Carolina's NAACP branch, said he was able to attend college because of the HOPE scholarship.

"(Students') lives are benefiting and the schools are benefiting from more minorities being able to come to school," he said.