The Georgia Senate voted on Tuesday along party lines to decrease HOPE scholarship payouts by $320 million. The 35-20 vote came after a nearly four-hour floor debate which ended substantive discussion on the fate of the scholarship.
The House of Representatives passed the amended version of the bill on Thursday, March 10, with a vote of 136-32. Calling the bill “Enduring HOPE,” Gov. Nathan Deal has said he will sign the bill next week. After being signed by the governor, the bill will go into effect starting in Fall 2011 for all in-state college students.
Senators passed a bill slightly different from the original version sent to them by the House on March 1. Besides making some technical amendments, Republicans amended the bill to automatically qualify high school valedictorians and salutatorians for the full tuition Zell Miller Scholarship and to establish a low-interest loan program intended to bridge the gap for some students between HOPE payments and tuition.
“We had to save a program which is accepted as one of the best in the country,” said Sen. Jim Butterworth (R-Cornelia), chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
The new program will give scholarships equal to 90 percent of current tuition levels to those students who achieve a 3.0 GPA in high school and keep that GPA throughout college. Those students who enter college with a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 SAT score will receive 100 percent of tuition through the Zell Miller Scholarship program as long as they maintain a 3.3 GPA in college. Mandatory fees and books will not be covered for any student.
“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. Deal proposed this plan for altering HOPE on Feb. 22 and is expected to sign the bill by the beginning of next week.
Senate Democrats proposed a series of amendments during the floor debate, all of which were defeated on party-line votes. Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) proposed an amendment which would have exempted current high school seniors and college students from the changes to HOPE, a so-called “grandfather clause.”
“I believe we owe it to the current students who came into college with the promise of HOPE, who have worked hard, who have attained, who have upheld their end of the bargain, and now we are going to tell them that the state of Georgia is not going to uphold its end of the bargain,” Carter said during debate.
Carter claimed that there was plenty of money in the Georgia Lottery Corporation account, which pays for the scholarship, to include all current students. He also took issue with the $180 million Deal has claimed a grandfather clause would cost. He said that the Board of Regents projected it would cost only $58 million.
John Millsaps, a spokesman for the Regents, clarified that number, saying that it only included the costs for grandfathering in University System of Georgia students and did not include payouts to students attending technical colleges or private universities.
“It’s not fair to say we’re not grandfathering anybody in,” Butterworth said, referring to the approximately 12,000 students currently on the Fixed for Four program who would not see scholarship payouts decrease. Those on Fixed for Four—current third- and fourth-years—pay an amount that is less than 90 percent of current tuition and will have full tuition covered even if they have a GPA less than 3.3 and do not qualify for the Zell Miller Scholarship.
Butterworth, in statements paralleling those made during the floor debate in response to Carter’s proposal, hesitated to dip into lottery reserves more than necessary. “You’re playing with fire when you start spending away what you don’t have,” he said.
He also acknowledged that the lack of a grandfather clause was harsh.
“Welcome to the real world. Government can’t fix everything,” Butterworth said, pointing out that receiving 90 percent of tuition to attend Tech is a good deal.
“Overall, I think the bill is primarily in favor of Tech students,” said Elle Creel, Director of External Affairs for SGA. “It’s unfortunate that a grandfather clause was not included,” she continued, although she did acknowledge that students on Fixed for Four receive full tuition.
SGA made including a grandfather clause a priority in their efforts to change the legislation, highlighting it in several social media posts by Undergraduate Student Body President Corey Boone and in statements to the Undergraduate House of Representatives. Last month, Boone gave a speech at the House subcommittee meeting regarding the future of the scholarship in the state. Creel said that SGA had not engaged with the Democrats throughout the process, although the members of SGA had sent emails to Democrats.
Democrats also proposed an amendment which would have placed an income cap on the scholarship, limiting scholarship recipients to those whose families made less than $140,000. This measure, Democrats claimed, would save the scholarship for 94 percent of Georgians. They said that the Republicans’ plan would unfairly discriminate against African-American students with the use of an SAT requirement for the Zell Miller Scholarship.
Republicans claimed that this was not an accurate measure of the means to pay for tuition.
“$140,000 a year isn’t what it used to be,” Butterworth said.
Several students from Georgia colleges attended the debate in opposition to the bill. At several times, students stood up and began yelling down into the well of the Senate chamber. Capitol police immediately removed the students from the room. As they were escorted out, the students chanted “Kill the bill!” According to reports on WSBTV.com at least one student was arrested.
Students from Georgia State, UGA and other state institutions took part in a protest at the Capitol building last week to argue against deeper cuts and push for the inclusion of a grandfather clause to the bill. Ultimately these efforts were not enough to garner support for the amendment.
The actions of the students, along with the actions of other student protesters, were not well-received by Senate members.
“I think that reflects extremely poorly on those individuals…and on the student body itself,” Butterworth said. “I have no respect for those who don’t respect the decorum of a government body.”