Originally created 02/27/06

Political knives sharpened for fight to cut lottery pie



ATLANTA - Maedella Perry remembers voting for the lottery. She also remembers what she expected when she cast her ballot.

"When (Georgians) voted to pass the lottery, we were told it would support all students," said Ms. Perry, an Augusta woman who came to the Capitol recently to lobby legislators on behalf of the Parent Teacher Association.

Just what the state's residents were voting on then, and what the best uses of the lottery money would be in the future, have become part of a heated political battle over a measure expected to be one of Gov. Sonny Perdue's least controversial proposals for the 2006 legislative session.

Mr. Perdue, a Republican, has floated a constitutional amendment that would restrict lottery proceeds to scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs. But that has irritated Democrats who say the plan doesn't go far enough to save the HOPE scholarship. At the same time, some advocates of K-12 education argue that their students are being cut out of the lottery pie.

What looked like a relatively simple proposal when the session began in January has suddenly become very complicated.

Using the lottery

Republicans, who support the governor's position almost to a person, argue that most voters want lottery spending more limited than Maedella Perry does.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said many of the people he met in the barber shop on a recent visit seemed surprised to learn those restrictions weren't already a part of the constitution.

"We thought that was already in there," was the reaction Mr. Keen said he got.

It wasn't. In the lottery's early years, it provided hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from education centers to technical school buildings to classroom computers.

In all, about $1.8 billion was spent at Zoo Atlanta, colleges across the state and Georgia Public Broadcasting, among others.

That money was doled out by a Legislature dominated by Democrats and then-Gov. Zell Miller, seen as the father of the lottery.

The funding for those projects has eventually tapered off, with Mr. Perdue essentially eliminating the practice in his administration. Funding for many of those other projects now comes from bonds or general tax collections.

Some Democrats argue that there was nothing improper about using lottery money for projects that were essentially aimed at helping education.

"It served its purpose at a time that we needed technology and expansion of classrooms," said Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Marietta.

The PTA sees no problem with using lottery funds for K-12 education now. So it has staked out a position against the constitutional amendment because only a fraction of students go on to college or a trade school, where they could become eligible for HOPE.

Mr. Keen said the best way to resolve the question of what voters want is simply to ask them. A constitutional amendment would require approval from the voters in a referendum.

"If the PTA leadership ... (is) right, then why would they fear putting it out there and letting the parents decide?" Mr. Keen said.

Saving HOPE

Politics has also clouded the issue. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, is running for the nomination to oppose Mr. Perdue by trying to portray himself as the savior of HOPE and Mr. Perdue as the villain.

Mr. Taylor has proposed his own form of protection for HOPE, but focuses on a different side of the equation: Instead of looking at where the state is spending the money, he wants to make it more difficult to cut HOPE benefits.

Mr. Taylor's allies took the fight to the Senate floor when Mr. Perdue's amendment came for a vote.

"HOPE is not in danger," Savannah Democrat Sen. Regina Thomas told her colleagues. "The only danger HOPE is in is from you."

Democrats deprived Republicans of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the amendment through the Senate. Now, GOP leaders plan to bring it over to the House in an attempt to put the heat on the Senate Democrats.

"Everyone needs a do-over every once in a while," Mr. Keen said last week.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.

KEY BILLS

Senate Bill 84

Description: Requires government-issued photo identification for people to vote and allows for free voting cards to be made in each county

Status: Passed Senate; passed House; signed by governor

SB 86

Description: Bars use of eminent domain solely to increase tax base

Status: Passed Senate; sent to House Judiciary Committee

SB 377-378

Description: Place new restrictions on sexual predators by requiring prompt registration and placing new limits on where offenders can live

Status: Sent to Senate Judiciary Committee

SB 382

Description: Changes tables used to calculate child support payments

Status: Passed Senate, sent to House Judiciary Committee

SB 390

Description: "Classroom First for Georgia" requires local school district to spend at least 65 percent of budgets on classroom expenses.

Status: Passed Senate; passed House

SB 529

Description: Denies most taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants and prevents businesses who hire illegal workers from using wages as state-tax deductions

Status: Sent to Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security

Senate Resolution 655

Description: Amends state constitution to require that lottery funds be spent only on scholarships and pre-school programs

Status: Failed in Senate; reconsidered

SR 801

Description: Requires HOPE benefits not be cut until the program's reserves have dropped 35 percent and changes receive a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly and approval in a referendum

Status: Sent to Senate Higher Education Committee

House Bill 1059

Description: Significantly increases penalty for most sex crimes, particularly those against children, and calls for closer monitoring of convicted sex offenders

Status: Passed House; sent to Senate Judiciary Committee

HB 1061

Description: "Georgia Right to Self-defense Act of 2006" allows someone to use a lethal weapon to defend himself or herself when a home is forcibly entered.

Status: Sent to House Judiciary Committee

HB 1313

Description: Places new restrictions on power of eminent domain by requiring governments to meet certain standards before condemning property and provide extra notification to property owners

Status: Sent to House Judiciary Committee