ATLANTA - The Georgia Senate voted Tuesday to reduce HOPE scholarships for all but the state's highest scoring students and make other cuts in the cash-strapped program, two weeks after Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled his plan to keep the historic initiative from going broke.
The GOP-backed bill also would eliminate payments for books, fees and remedial classes. Awards would be set each year by the Legislature rather than being tied to tuition rates.
"This is a business issue," said Sen. Jim Butterworth, a Republican from Cornelia and the governor's floor leader. "Our goal is to save the HOPE scholarship."
The measure, which passed 35-20 along party lines, now goes back to the House, which passed the original version last week.
Democrats say the bill is unfair to poor and minority students. They say the Georgia Lottery Corp. should give more money to education before the awards are cut. However, the GOP-led Senate voted down amendments that would have given full scholarships to a larger number of students and forced the Lottery Corp. to put more money into the education account.
The defeated changes also would have grandfathered in current HOPE recipients.
"I believe we owe it to the current college students who have come in with the promise of HOPE, who have worked hard, who have upheld their end of the bargain," said Sen. Jason Carter, a Democrat from Atlanta who has led the minority party's push to change the governor's bill.
His fellow Democrat, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, has backed 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.
The bill would cut the scholarships to 90 percent for all but the brightest students, though that figure doesn't account for expected double-digit tuition increases at some public colleges this fall. Students who earn a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 on the SAT - and the valedictorian and salutatorian at each high school - would also get a full scholarship.
The plan would 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.
The bill caps how much retailers can collect from selling winning tickets and limits the bonuses given to Georgia Lottery officials.
Deal has argued that even with cuts, HOPE will continue to be among the most generous scholarship programs in the nation. Since 1993, the HOPE scholarship has sent more than 1 million Georgians to college and been imitated by more than a dozen states.
Until now, HOPE has provided free public college tuition to students with a 3.0 grade point average or better. But lottery proceeds have not kept pace with rising tuition and skyrocketing enrollment.
"The state Senate today gave a gift to future generations of Georgia's outstanding students by preserving the promise of the HOPE scholarship," Deal said in a press release.
About 75 college students rallied outside the Capitol before the debate began, holding signs that said "We are not ATMs" and "Education is under attack." The students filled the public gallery on the Senate floor, but were kicked out when they began chanting "Kill the bill!"
University of Georgia freshman Rose Dasher said she worries her little brother won't be able to afford college because her parents can't help with college costs.
"Anybody should be able to get a higher education," said Dasher, who works to pay for costs that HOPE doesn't cover. "I'm tired of hearing it's going to cover 90 percent and 'you should be happy with it' That's not enough for some people."
The state is also cutting back its lottery-funded prekindergarten program, though that's not part of the bill. Deal's plan would cut the school year from 180 to 160 days and add 2,000 slots, putting a dent in the 10,000 4-year-olds on a waiting list for pre-k.