Senate Democrats propose means-testing for HOPE applicants

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Democratic Senators are calling for changes in the HOPE scholarship program that would limit the college grants to applicants from families with incomes below $140,000.

Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) said Monday he will introduce legislation restoring the income cap that was in effect for the first two years the HOPE scholarship was awarded during the 1990s.

By limiting scholarships to applicants from middle- and lower-income families, Carter said the program would maximize the amount of college tuition assistance that would be available to students who really need it.

“The governor’s so-called HOPE reform from last year has failed,” Carter said at a news conference. “HOPE still does not live within its means.”

Carter was criticizing the “Zell Miller Scholarship” that was implemented last year as one of several changes proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal to try to maintain the fiscal stability of the HOPE program. Zell Miller scholarships provide full tuition to students who have at least a 3.7 grade point average when they graduate from high school.

The new program has turned out to be more of a financial drain on the HOPE program, however, because thousands more applicants are qualifying for the Zell Miller scholarships than had originally been projected.

As a result, the money available to other HOPE scholarship applicants is declining and the program is having to tap into its reserve funds.

Carter claimed there are 10,000 fewer HOPE recipients than there were before Deal’s proposal was implemented, which he said has “turned it into an entitlement for rich families.”

Deal’s office rejected that characterization of the governor’s proposal.

“The governor and Legislature fought to save the merit-based scholarship that has helped a generation of Georgians attain a college education here at home,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said.

“The fact is, last year’s reforms saved the program,” Robinson said. “Opponents of the reforms stuck their heads in the sand. If we had heeded their ‘eat, drink and be merry’ approach, the system would now be on the verge of bankruptcy. They have no credibility on the issue. They just want to play politics. We’re more interested in finding solutions, which we did.”

The income cap proposed by Senate Democrats would restore the family income cap that was in place when the first HOPE scholarships were awarded in 1993, although the limit then was set at $66,000.

The HOPE legislation was one of several bills that Democrats plan to introduce this session. Other items on their legislative agenda include:

  • Make the top 3 percent of all high school graduates eligible for the Zell Miller scholarship.
  • Add a student member to the Board of Regents.
  • Create a health insurance change where consumers and small businesses could secure health coverage at more competitive prices.
  • Restore full funding for the pre-kindergarten program.
  • Provide academic credit in the University System for instruction that military veterans received while in the service.
  • Provide a payroll tax credit to companies that hire unemployed veterans.
  • Require health insurance policies to provide coverage for autism and for the treatment of dependent children with cancer.

Democrats said they were hoping to persuade some lawmakers from the Republican majority to sign on as co-sponsors of the bills.

“We are willing to work with Republicans,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson (D-Tucker). “We want them to listen to our ideas.”

© 2012 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: HOPE scholarships , Jason Carter , Nathan Deal , Senate Democrats , Steve Henson