Originally created 11/27/03

Lawmakers unsure of changes



ATHENS, Ga. - Half of the eight lawmakers on a 20-person commission weighing ways to retool the HOPE scholarship are unsure whether recommendations they'll make to legislative colleagues next month will shield the award from further tweaking. But state Rep. Louise McBee, D-Athens, has no doubts the scholarship will be preserved if the General Assembly follows through with the commission's recommendations.

Recommendations include dropping the books and fees allowances afforded to HOPE scholars, implementing a uniform grading system for high schoolers vying for the award and checking HOPE recipients' grades more often to ensure they have a 3.0 grade point average.

"The Legislature has to approve it all," said Ms. McBee, the co-chairwoman of the commission. "But I feel very comfortable with what we have suggested and with what things can be initiated later on."

State Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, the commission's co-chairman, disagreed.

The recommendations, he contends, simply will delay the inevitable - HOPE again will be in jeopardy. The only question, he said, is when.

"The only permanent fix I think is to decide, 'OK, we're going to have this amount of revenue from the lottery. Therefore, this amount goes to each student for each HOPE,"' Mr. Hamrick said. "But I think if we make some of the changes that we recommend, the likelihood of HOPE being around 20 years from now is much greater."

Funded by lottery ticket sales, HOPE pays tuition, fees and $300 toward books each year for in-state students carrying at least a 3.0 GPA. Since July, the commission - made up of lawmakers, educators, students and parents - has discussed ways to revamp the scholarship, which members say will be $250 million in the red within five years.

The award, given to more than 700,000 students since its 1993 inception, is in financial straits because the cost of college and the number of students enrolling are outpacing lottery revenue.

On top of the recommendation list, released last week, is cutting the books and fees payments, starting next fall - something commission members say will save about $125 million in fiscal 2005, which begins July 1. Future savings could exceed $200 million a year by 2009.

University of Georgia students will pay an additional $1,170 next year if lawmakers approve that recommendation.

State Rep. Bob Holmes, D-Atlanta, said his proposal to preserve HOPE didn't make the recommendation list being forwarded to legislators.

"I think we ought to revisit the income. It's the lower-income folks who buy these (lottery) tickets, but yet about 80 percent of the kids in Athens couldn't afford to go without the OPE) scholarship," Mr. Holmes said. "It should be, in my mind, a graduated scholarship based on income needs."

State Rep. Gerald Greene, D-Cuthbert, says that's not the solution.

"I wish we had a crystal ball to say what the economy is going to do and to see if people are going to continue buying into the lottery," he said. "But I just don't know and no one else does."

The best tack for legislators now is take one measure at a time, Mr. Greene said, starting with the books and fees. That, he said, wouldn't change the academic aspect of HOPE, specifically the number of students who qualify.

"I think the books and fees are the least in regards to controversy," Mr. Greene said. "Maybe we should move very slowly and ease people in one change at a time."