By DORIE TURNER
ATLANTA - A bill that dramatically overhauls the cash-strapped HOPE scholarship continued to speed through the Georgia Legislature on Tuesday, gaining overwhelming approval from the state House.
The bill is part of Gov. Nathan Deal's plan to save lottery-funded programs - including the college scholarships and the state's prekindergarten program - from going broke. The GOP-backed legislation, introduced a week ago, got a vote of 152-22.
"We cannot - I repeat, we cannot - continue the path we're on. Changes must be made," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, a floor leader for Deal.
Some Democrats have expressed concerns that the bill is moving too quickly, but legislative leaders say Georgia families need to know how the scholarship will change as soon as possible because students are making college decisions now.
Democrats in the Senate are expected to release their own proposal to cut the HOPE program on Wednesday, including addressing concerns that low-income and minority students will be hurt the most by the cuts.
Still, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a Democrat from Atlanta, is backing the bill. She said the governor agreed to include measures she asked for: a low-interest loan program for students who don't quite get the required 3.0 GPA for HOPE and a measure that won't reduce HOPE scholarships for students who also get Pell grants.
"Access to college is the reason I am standing here and not standing in Hattiesburg, Miss., with my sixth of seventh child," she said. "There must be shared sacrifice in the getting of an education and in the access to an education."
The bill would cut the scholarships to 90 percent for all but the brightest students and eliminate paying for books, fees and remedial classes. Students graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA and at least a 1200 on the SAT can get full tuition, but the rest will get about 90 percent of their current awards.
For years, HOPE has been tied to tuition, rising each time the state Board of Regents voted for an increase, but Deal's plan would separate the two. The plan would also trim HOPE for students attending private colleges in Georgia from $4,000 to $3,600.
Students whose grades slip while in college would have only one chance to win the scholarship back. High school students would need to take more rigorous classes to qualify for HOPE. And technical college students who receive HOPE grants would for the first time need to demonstrate they are earning good grades.
Deal has argued that even with cuts, HOPE will continue to be among the most generous scholarship programs in the nation. The HOPE scholarship has sent more than 1 million Georgians to college and been imitated by more than a dozen states.
The bill also caps how much retailers can collect from selling winning tickets and limit the bonuses given to Georgia Lottery officials, linking such awards to how much the lottery deposits in the HOPE scholarship's coffers.
For years, HOPE has provided free public college tuition to those students with a 3.0 grade point average or better. But lottery proceeds have not kept pace with rising tuition and skyrocketing enrollment, and the popular program is going broke.
Not all Democrats agree with Abrams, though.
"The changes our leadership has been able to make in this very bad bill, those changes are not enough," said Rep. Gloria Tinubu, D-Atlanta. "When are we going to stop benefiting those of us who can - who are able to do better - on the backs of poor people?"
The state is also cutting back its lottery-funded prekindergarten program, though it's not part of the bill passed Tuesday because the program isn't part of state statute as HOPE is. Deal's plan would reduce pre-k to a half-day program - down from 6 1/2 hours a day to four - allowing him to add 5,000 more slots. That will help plow through the 10,000 4-year-olds on a waiting list for pre-k.
Maya Basu, a high school senior in Cumming, said she's frustrated that HOPE is being cut as she heads to college in the fall. She decided to stay in state because of it, just like her older sister.
"HOPE always seemed to be a guaranteed thing," Basu said. "That's the reason I didn't apply to too many out-of-state schools."
H.B. 326: http://www.legis.state.ga.us