HOPE overhaul OK’d by 2 House panels

ATLANTA -- A sweeping overhaul of the state’s lottery-funded HOPE scholarship rapidly moved through the Legislature on Thursday as two House panels signed off on the proposal only two days after it was introduced.

Pushed by new Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, the bill makes deep cuts to the HOPE scholarship as well as to pre-kindergarten to keep the cash-strapped programs afloat. Lottery proceeds have not been able to keep pace with rising tuition and skyrocketing enrollment. The program was set to go broke without changes.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the bill 60-2 on Thursday morning a little more than an hour after the higher education subcommittee unanimously approved the measure. Deal unveiled the bill Tuesday.

HOPE, the landmark Georgia scholarship begun in 1993, is among the biggest issues lawmakers will tackle this session.

The House made some changes to the governor’s proposal, placing further restrictions on lucrative bonuses for lottery staff and boosting the amount retailers receive for selling winning lottery tickets.

State Rep. Doug Collins said Thursday the changes were vital to keep the first-in-the-nation HOPE scholarship afloat.

“We are looking ahead to keep the promise enduring for many generations to come,” the Gainesville Republican said. “This is not something that is going to get better if we close our eyes and click our heels and spin around.”

Under the plan, only high school students with 3.7 grade point averages and 1200s on their SATs would continue to qualify for free public college tuition under HOPE. That’s about 10 percent of current HOPE recipients.

Those with 3.0 GPAs would see a portion of their tuition covered, 90 percent next year.

The proposed changes mean at least 200,000 current students would see cuts to their HOPE awards.

Those attending private colleges in Georgia would see their awards shrink from $4,000 to $3,600.

The House moved to further limit bonuses paid to lottery employees, which in the past have sometimes doubled their salaries. Deal’s plan would have capped those awards at 25 percent of salary. The amended House bill would allow bonuses to be paid only if the lottery funneled more money to education, and it would allow those bonuses to be capped at 1 percent of that additional amount.

Facing complaints from business groups, House legislators also increased the amount that store owners may receive for selling winning tickets. Deal had proposed lowering the retailer cut to 5 percent of the award, down from the current 7 percent. The House on Thursday boosted that to 6 percent.

At a hearing Wednesday, Jim Tudor, of the Georgia Association of Convenience Store Owners, argued that part of the reason the lottery has been successful is that retailers have been motivated to sell tickets. Decreasing the amount they are able to earn could result in lower lottery ticket sales, Tudor said.

The bill now moves to the Rules Committee, which will decide when it faces a full House vote.