Originally created 04/01/04

Senate votes to look at reforms once more



ATLANTA - The Georgia Senate overwhelmingly voted to reconsider reforms to the popular HOPE scholarship program Wednesday, revitalizing the drive to prevent the program from running into financial troubles.

The 45-2 vote means the bill would be eligible for the next day the General Assembly is in session. Wednesday marked the 38th legislative day of the 40-day session.

As of early evening, the date of the 39th day hadn't been scheduled.

When and whether the bill is scheduled rests with the Senate Rules Committee.

Both chambers of the General Assembly have approved a version of HOPE reform. Either the Senate or the House must approve an altered version of the other chamber's HOPE reform bill to begin formal negotiations.

Last week, the Senate's GOP leadership tried to pass an amended version of the House's HOPE legislation, but the bill failed to muster the 29 votes necessary to pass because some senators were absent or didn't vote.

How to reform the HOPE scholarship, which lawmakers say is the most popular government program in state history, has become one of the most contentious issues of the session.

State analysts say HOPE, which stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, could soon face rocky financial waters as Georgia's college enrollment outstrips the growth in the lottery revenues that fund the program.

While a formal conference committee can't begin work until the Senate passes the amended House bill, members of both chambers are already working to hammer out a final agreement.

Many of the measures in the House and Senate bills closely resemble each other.

Both set up a "true B" requirement for high school students applying for HOPE, and both add checkpoints for recipients to ensure they maintain the 3.0 grade point average to keep HOPE.

It was the checkpoint issue that caused Senate Democrats to oppose the amended House legislation.

Opponents said the new checkpoints would hurt part-time students.

Senate Higher Education Chairman Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, later said those concerns would likely be addressed in the final bill.

The main difference between the House and Senate bills lies in the "trigger" provisions meant to reduce and eventually eliminate the books and fees allowances to keep the program solvent. The provisions would be "triggered" if the program is forced to dip into its reserves.

The Senate bill would gradually reduce and eliminate funds for fees and books depending on how many years the reserves were tapped.

The House measure would reduce and eliminate the books payments while capping the amount of fees the scholarship pays.

Students who are also eligible for the federal Pell grant would be exempted from reductions in book payments.