Originally created 04/02/04

HOPE bill faces tight time frame



ATLANTA - The HOPE Scholarship faced a crucial deadline Thursday as the Senate debated dozens of bills and the clock wound down on the 2004 legislative session.

A formal House-Senate conference committee to hammer out an agreement between the two chambers still had not been created as of 6 p.m. Thursday. To create such a panel, either the House or the Senate would have to pass an altered version of the other chamber's bill.

Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, said the "general outlines" of a compromise were close to being settled.

"I guess the main sticking point would be in the details of how to do the trigger," Mr. Hamrick said.

Both Mr. Hamrick and House Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Louise McBee, D-Athens, said they were optimistic the Senate would take up the bill.

An attempt to pass an amended version of the House proposal through the Senate faltered last week.

A new vote was expected late Thursday or early today.

To pass the General Assembly this year, a bill reforming HOPE, which stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, would have to clear both houses by the 40th and final legislative day.

An unrelated dispute on the state budget made it unclear when the session might close.

Mr. Hamrick said he believed a compromise could still be reached in time to pass the General Assembly.

"I think we just have to work within the time frame we're given," he said.

But Ms. McBee said she'd like to have at least the weekend to work on the measure in an attempt to reach an agreement on the scholarship.

"I would rather wait and have a little time," she said.

Lawmakers were growing increasingly pessimistic Thursday that an early end to the session, perhaps as soon as today, could be avoided.

State analysts say that, if nothing is done, the program could soon begin dipping into its revenues as Georgia's exploding college enrollment outstrips growth in the lottery revenues that fund HOPE.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701

or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.