The most daring political statement at the state Capitol last week was contained within a photograph.
The shutter caught Gov. Nathan Deal in mid-phrase as he outlined the cuts he thinks have to be made in order to preserve the HOPE scholarship program.
The governor was the centerpiece in a sea of white Republicans — with the exception of the face positioned just over Deal’s left shoulder. It belonged to Stacy Abrams of Atlanta, the sole African-American in the frame and the new House Democratic leader.
Abrams’ presence, on behalf of her Democratic caucus, guarantees swift passage through the House this week.
But her endorsement caught insiders and outsiders by surprise. David Lucas, D-Macon, one of the most senior members of the caucus, had already filed a bill that would return HOPE to its 18-year-old roots — as a lottery-funded, college scholarship program for families living below a certain income level.
The Deal plan would turn the HOPE scholarship into a lump-sum grant, covering 90 percent of tuition for high school graduates with a 3.0 grade point average and above. Only graduates with a 3.7 GPA and an SAT score of 1200 would get a full ride.
That’s not a formula beneficial to young African-Americans, who often perform more poorly on standardized tests. “What we have done is give HOPE to the affluent families who can already afford to send their kids to college, and deprive poorer white and black kids an opportunity to break out. Bad policy,” former Gov. Roy Barnes wrote to his contacts.
There is a strategy in boxing and other martial arts that says if a blow can’t be avoided, the next best tactic is to step into it – and absorb the assault before it can achieve its full momentum.
Abrams argues that this is what the situation called for. “A bill is going to pass. I thought it best that we have a seat at the table,” the Atlanta lawyer, who first came to the Legislature in 2007, said in an interview. “This is a Democratic program.”
Republican dominance in the House now allows the GOP to pass legislation at will. But the HOPE program, established under Gov. Zell Miller, is so popular that altering it remains a dangerous proposition.
By giving Deal enough Democratic support to call the effort bipartisan, Abrams said she won concessions on a number of issues. Among them:
– HOPE will still cover remedial classes for those attending Georgia’s technical colleges. Republicans had planned an across-the-board ban.
– “Proprietary” colleges and universities — such as DeVry University and ITT Technical Institute — remain eligible for HOPE dollars. The Deal administration had talked about shutting out these schools, whose local campuses are attended disproportionately by minority students in Georgia.
– The basic HOPE scholarship is still determined by a 3.0 GPA only. No mandatory SAT or ACT scores were added.
– The funding of a 1 percent loan program to help students cover the gap left by shrinking HOPE awards and tuition costs that are certain to rise. That’s important to historical black colleges and universities in Georgia, whose students often aren’t eligible for HOPE.
“The easiest thing for Stacy would have been to sit back,” said a grateful state Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who is carrying the HOPE bill for the governor.
Abrams said she won her caucus’ approval before she joined Deal on the stage. But a quickly issued press release, saying her support was “conditioned on reaching an accord on key provisions,” indicated some heartburn among the Democratic rank-and-file.
Abrams wasn’t the only Democrat on the stage with the governor. There, too, was state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, who positioned himself out of camera range.
But Smyre, a former chairman of the state Democratic party, defended Abrams’ approach — and her limited options. “That’s something that external people don’t understand — those outside the Gold Dome,” he said.
With HOPE scholarships outpacing the lottery revenue that funds them, Smyre said the Legislature had only three options: 1) Impose an across-the-board reduction in awards; 2) return to an income-based system; or 3) award scholarships in amounts based on GPA or SAT scores.
Republicans refused to consider Options 2 and 3.
Smyre said Democrats can add more tweaks. He intends to concentrate on strengthening the 1 percent loan program. “In my opinion, we’ve got to keep the dialogue going about the safety net,” he said.
Other Democrats object to the proposed reduction of operating hours for the pre-kindergarten classes fueled by lottery money — arguing that half-day classes would require some parents to quit their jobs to stay at home with their kids.
More objections are likely to be raised in the Senate, where — though again vastly outnumbered — Democrats are led by the razor-tongued and rarely compromising Robert Brown, D-Macon.
His style contrasts greatly with Abrams, who confesses she is no bomb-thrower in the style of Newt Gingrich. Her strategy is to engage and cut deals where she can.
“If you’re going to be a bomb-thrower like Newt Gingrich, you have to be the leader of an ideologically cohesive group. And you have to care more about politics than policy,” Abrams said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider