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Sen. Chance: HOPE scholarship funding on the line

The state budget will be the dominant issue of this year’s legislative session, by far, according to Ga. Senator Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone).

December’s state revenue figures came in about 10 percent above last year, about three times more than expected, Chance said. Still, the state is looking at having to make a budget cut between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, he added.

“We’ve got to come up with some ways to fill that hole,” Chance said, noting that Georgia is fortunate that the state constitution requires the legislature to pass a balanced budget each year. “... We can’t spend money we don’t have.”

The state has cut more than $5 billion in the last three years without raising taxes, Chance said.

But more cuts will be necessary for this year, and the legislature will have a better idea of those potential cuts in about two weeks, Chance said.

Another big issue the legislature will tackle this year is the stability of the HOPE scholarship program for college students, Chance said. The program is short by several hundred million dollars this year, and the state will cover the shortfall with reserves, “but then we can’t do it again,” Chance said.

Chance cited the following data as significant concerns about the HOPE program, which is funded by revenues from the Georgia Lottery.

• Since 2000, lottery sales have gone up 58 percent, but pay-outs to winners have gone up 70 percent in the same time frame;

• Salaries and benefits of lottery executive employees during that time frame have gone up 54 percent;

• In 2000, 30 cents of every dollar spent on the lottery went directly to the state’s Pre-K and HOPE scholarship programs for university and technical college students. That number in 2010 has dropped to 24 cents on the dollar.

The salary and benefits issue is a problem that needs to be addressed, Chance said.

“I think it’s a good program, and it has done a lot of good for students, kids and families,” Chance said. “We want to be able to sustain it but at the current rate we cannot. We have to make some changes.”

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