Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Reform of the HOPE scholarship was the signature legislative accomplishment of Governor Nathan Deal during the 2011 session of the General Assembly. HOPE, having assumed a “third rail” position among Georgia’s most revered political programs, was spending more than the Georgia Lottery was bringing in. Compounding the problem, Georgia college tuition rates have continued to rise significantly faster than the rate of inflation, while lottery revenues appear to have reached a natural peak.
Governor Deal worked with House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams on a plan to tweak the payouts from HOPE. Abrams was able to successfully gain some adjustments from the Governor in exchange for support from some House Democrats, with most of the Governor’s package remaining intact. Only the highest performing students would continue to receive full HOPE grants, with most students receiving less than full tuition.
Senator Jason Carter greeted the proposal in the Senate with charts showing legislators how HOPE reform would affect students in their districts, versus the effects of a Democratic alternative to means test scholarships. In stark detail, many rural legislators were shown that they could vote for an alternative that would keep significantly more students from their districts on HOPE under a means tested program. The balance would be taken from mostly suburban Atlanta counties, where means testing would end up with almost one third of students from wealthier counties losing their scholarships.
Carter’s efforts temporarily stalled the bill in the Senate. Partially reflecting a power shift from rural Georgia to the Republican dominated Atlanta suburbs, and perhaps more importantly, with Republican leadership not wanting to torpedo a new Republican Governor’s first major legislative initiative, Deal’s proposal passed the Senate and was signed into law.
In late fall, new numbers from the Georgia Student Finance Commission and the Georgia Lottery Corporation began to sound new alarm bells. It seems that 5,000 more students qualified for the full ride Zell Miller Scholarships than were expected. Meanwhile, lottery revenue remains relatively flat. Alarm bells were again sounded that HOPE could have expenses surpass revenue within two years.
Senate Democrats filed SB 336 on Tuesday, proposing an income cap of $140,000 for parents whose children are eligible to receive HOPE. Zell Miller scholars would be exempt from the means testing. The income limit would be set annually by the Georgia Student Finance Commission to maximize the number of HOPE eligible students.
Just weeks before the new HOPE projections began to leak, a study commissioned by the Georgia Lottery Corporation was revealed by an AJC open records request demonstrating how much revenue could be produced by casinos in Atlanta, Savannah, and Jekyll Island. The proposal was quickly shot down by the Governor, who is opposed to casino gambling in Georgia and does not appear to look favorably toward Georgia Lottery Corporation operating video lottery games in a casino format.
The new HOPE projections began leaking within days of the rebuke of the casino plan from the Governor’s office. One could believe this was a mere coincidence, and coincidences are technically possible in political situations. They are rare when billions of dollars – and who produces and controls them – are at stake.
It is clear that there are organized, connected, and well financed interests who want a casino located at Underground Atlanta. They are prepared, once again, to promise to alleviate the pain if they could just partner with the Georgia Lottery Corporation to offer video poker and video slot machine lottery games in a Downtown Casino. They would certainly be willing to operate on the Georgia coast as well, but the Georgia Lottery Commission’s report made it clear that Atlanta is the prize.
If an extension into gambling by GLC is rejected, the alternative to a casino is more cuts to HOPE recipients. Either students from upper income families that don’t have a 3.7 GPA can be excluded completely, or the per student payout will continue to decrease.
These cuts will have to happen starting in two years according to the newest projections. That’s about the same time it would take to redevelop Underground into a casino. But that, as well, could be just another coincidence.