By DORIE TURNER
ATLANTA - Georgia Democrats released an alternative plan Wednesday to save the cash-strapped HOPE scholarship and prekindergarten programs, calling Gov. Nathan Deal's proposal unfair to Georgia families.
The plan would give full scholarships to most Georgians and keep pre-k as a full-day program, a counter to Deal's bill that cuts HOPE scholarships to 90 percent for nearly all students and scales back pre-k to half-day. State Sen. Jason Carter, a Democrat from Atlanta, said the plan would be paid for by increasing the amount the Georgia Lottery sends to the HOPE coffers and reducing how much lottery retailers receive for selling winning tickets.
It comes a day after the Georgia House overwhelmingly passed Deal's bill. The measure will now go before the state Senate.
"The bill that passed the House is bad for Georgia," said state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, a former HOPE recipient who voted against it Tuesday. "HOPE gave me hope I could go to college no matter what family income was."
The Democrats presented the plan before a crowded room of college and high school students, many of whom rallied in front of the Capitol on Wednesday morning, chanting "Shame on you!" and "Kill the bill!"
Holding signs that said "Don't cut my future" and "Don't give up on us please," the students demanded that state lawmakers starting their day inside the Gold Dome find another way to save the 20-year-old scholarship program that pays full college tuition for any high school graduate with a B average.
"There's no way I'd be able to afford my education without HOPE," said Myeia Bautista, 18, a freshman at Georgia State University who is the first in her family to graduate high school and go to college. "I'm going to have to drop out."
Bautista, raised by a single mother, said she has already taken out $2,000 in loans to pay for room and board, which are not covered by HOPE. If her award is cut, she said, she'll have to transfer to a technical college.
Deal's bill reduces most students' awards - leaving full tuition for students with the highest grades - and calls for them to be set each year by state lawmakers rather than simply following tuition increases. The awards would equal 90 percent of current tuition rates, which doesn't take into effect steep tuition increases expected for the fall.
It also cuts funds for books, fees and remedial classes. The changes mean students will have to pay thousands more out of pocket for their educations.
Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the governor wants HOPE to continue to be merit-based, not based on income.
"Our plan allows all Georgia students, regardless of income, to go to college at home at nominal costs. Georgians will prefer the Deal plan and we're confident the votes will be a testament to this," Robinson said.
The bill has moved through the legislature at lightning speed, gaining bipartisan support at the GOP-led Capitol, including House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.
But not all Democrats are with Abrams.
Carter and the dozen Democratic lawmakers who presented their own plan Wednesday say they want to maintain the full scholarship for families making up to $140,000, or about 94 percent of Georgians. They also want to give full tuition, books and fees to the top 3 percent of graduates from every high school in the state.
The lottery-funded HOPE and pre-k programs have outgrown lottery revenues and will go broke by next year without changes. A predicted shortfall for the programs tops $300 million for next year.
Deal and legislative leaders say the bill is the best way to preserve the program, vowing that HOPE will still be among the most generous scholarship programs in the country. But some lawmakers say the bill will hurt students, families and the state.
H.B. 326: http://www.legis.state.ga.us