Early last month, during one of an infinite number of committee meetings at the state Capitol, a group of House and Senate members were handed an official estimate of future HOPE scholarship payouts.
It was a breath-taking experience. Literally. Members of the audience could hear the gasps of lawmakers.
Only last year, Gov. Nathan Deal and the Republican-led Legislature, with some Democratic cooperation, revamped the HOPE program in a highly publicized effort to save it, resulting in reduced grants for most students.
The figures handed to lawmakers in January indicated that the program will limp along until the fall semester of 2013 – when HOPE payouts again will have to be reduced to meet the growing number of students who seek and qualify for the scholarships.
But that was only one part of the shock. What really may have knocked the wind out of legislators was the realization that, in coming years, they may be forced to cast vote after vote to reduce the HOPE payout. Not something to brag about when you go home to face voters.
Democrats have been quick to grasp the hazard that a continually shrinking HOPE program presents to their Republican colleagues. In the House, constrained by the fact that their leader, Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, was a featured player in last year’s bipartisan HOPE talks, Democrats have merely proposed dropping – from 3.0 to 2.5 – the grade point average required for technical school students seeking HOPE grants.
Given Gov. Nathan Deal’s emphasis on re-training workers for a shifting economy, it sounds like an area for negotiation.
It is in the Senate that Democrats, led by Jason Carter of Decatur, have been most aggressive. Carter has declared last year’s HOPE solution to be an expensive failure – and again is advocating that the program return to its means-testing roots.
When it was introduced in 1993 by Gov. Zell Miller, the HOPE scholarship was limited to families who earned a total of $66,000 a year — about $102,000 in today’s terms, if inflation calculators are accurate. The cap was quickly lifted when early lottery revenue, which funds the HOPE, outran projections.
Carter and his colleagues have pitched a cap of $140,000.
Given that Carter is a Democrat, his bill stands little chance of moving. Even so, the governor’s office on Friday made sure that Senate Republicans were well-stoked with talking points. The memo to the GOP caucus declared that Carter’s plan would “bankrupt” the program – but an emphasis was placed on Democratic support for means-testing:
“The bipartisan coalition that passed HOPE maintained a merit-based scholarship that treats all Georgians equally and rewards hard work, dedication and academic excellence,” the memo said. Carter’s proposed changes would create “ a quota that undercuts academic results by rewarding some less-qualified students, while excluding higher performing students in other parts of the state.”
Merit-based versus means-testing would seem to be a hard-and-fast point of political philosophy. But the wall may be less solid than you think.
Consider the official Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last month, issued by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. The GOP spokesman offered an alternative solution for the repair of Medicare and Social Security, the nation’s two largest entitlement programs.
“Decades ago, for instance, we could afford to send millionaires pension checks and pay medical bills for even the wealthiest among us. Now, we can’t, so the dollars we have should be devoted to those who need them most,” Daniels said. Substitute a few words, and Daniel sounds very much like Jimmy Carter’s grandson.
In a hallway on Friday, I ran into state Rep. Ben Harbin, the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He is a Republican from Evans, a well-to-do suburb of Augusta.
Harbin said that, for several years, Republicans have quietly discussed the likelihood that HOPE – at least a portion of it – will have to be returned to its needs-based roots. “It may be inevitable,” he said.
Keep in mind that we have two Republican parties in Georgia. One is dominated by suburbia, a world of high-performing schools that produce high-performing, HOPE-consuming graduates. Then there is Republican rural Georgia, where schools are often underfunded – and high school graduates can be at a disadvantage.
Suburban influence in the Capitol is growing, but rural legislators still have clout – and ultimately won’t allow their constituents to be grade-pointed out of the popular scholarship program.
It is worth noting that on Monday, Deal will unveil a new scholarship program aimed at getting kids into college – and keeping them there. It will be privately funded, but it will be a needs-based program.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider