ATLANTA — Senate Democrats say Georgia's HOPE scholarship is still in crisis and are warning their Republican colleagues that last year's GOP-led overhaul of the program is a "failed reform" that is paying for thousands fewer students to go to college.
On Tuesday, Democrats — who hold the minority in the Legislature — filed several bills aimed at revisiting at HOPE scholarship this session. Among their proposals is a bill that would restore an income eligibility cap and another that would make the top 3 percent of all high school graduates eligible for the newly created Zell Miller Scholarship, named for the program's patriarch.
"A HOPE plan that reduces the number of students who get degrees can only be called a failure, both for our students and our economy," said Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, a leading opponent of last year's legislation who has filed two of this year's HOPE-related bills. "I believe in my heart that this does not have to be a partisan issue."
Last year's sweeping changes were a directive of newly elected Gov. Nathan Deal, who made "saving HOPE" the top priority of his first year in office. Republicans painted a dire picture, threatening the extinction of HOPE absent immediate legislative action. Opponents' objections were largely drowned out.
The latest estimates from the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers HOPE, showed typical students at the University of Georgia would see a 38 percent reduction in their lottery-funded award between now and mid-2015. By then, the student would have to pay $2,732 in expenses every semester. That student's HOPE scholarship would cover the remaining $2,461 in costs.
HOPE, along with pre-kindergarten, is funded by the state lottery. The cuts were made because lottery proceeds haven't kept pace with rising tuition and skyrocketing enrollment and the program was set to go broke.
It is unclear whether the Democrats' proposal will gain any traction this session, with last year's vote split along party lines and the Legislature up for re-election in 2012.
Senate Higher Education Chairman Buddy Carter said on Tuesday that the Legislature "accomplished a lot" on HOPE last year and that he does not agree with the Democratic proposals.
"A lot of them were the some of the same proposals from last year," Carter said. "I do not feel that putting a salary cap on the HOPE scholarship helps us keep the best and brightest in our state."
Still, Carter said that he is open to looking at possible changes to the HOPE scholarship and said "we're always tweaking every program."
Senate Republicans are also offering ideas on how to address the HOPE scholarship. Earlier this month, Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-Locust Grove, proposed legislation that would divert unclaimed state lottery funds to HOPE and pre-K. Currently, unclaimed monies are sent back to the lottery pool for future prizes or programs related to treating gambling addiction.
Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, said the Democrats' proposals are politically viable because quality education matters to all voters, and that Republicans could be receptive to "tweaks" from the other side. He cited an example last year of a Democratic suggestion to the HOPE legislation that added all high school valedictorians and salutatorians to those who would be guaranteed a scholarship.
"They're going to call it tweaking," Jackson said. "Their tweaks will contain many measures that we propose."
Sen. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, who serves as one of the governor's floor leaders and is on the higher education committee, said he has not yet seen the Democrats' legislation, but is "sure there will be more discussion in the next few days about where we are."
"Georgia has the only merit-based scholarship in the country," Chance said. "We obviously want to make the scholarship available to as many deserving students as possible."
The HOPE scholarship was created with an income cap, but it was removed as a political measure of goodwill amid abundant revenues from the state lottery, which fund the program. Now that the lottery can no longer sustain HOPE, Democrats argue it is time to restore the cap. Carter's proposal would limit eligibility to families with an income of $140,000 or less.
Last week, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said that while affordable higher education is critical to the success of the state, Georgia cannot fund the education of every deserving college student.
"It was never created to become or be an entitlement program," Cagle said of HOPE.
Senate Democrats counter that it has become that for students from wealthy families who attend the best schools. They say the intent of HOPE was always for students who could not afford to go to college.
"I don't believe that HOPE should be an entitlement program for those who need it the least," Carter said.