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Sen. Chance: HOPE, Pre-K to take hits in tight budget

Local families depending on the state’s HOPE scholarship program will have to kick in a little bit more for their college students starting this fall under a proposal to shore up Georgia’s lottery-funded education programs in the midst of declining revenue.

The bipartisan legislation, announced Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal, also calls for a reduction in the state’s Pre-K program from a six-and-a-half-hour day to a four-hour day. This will be accomplished in part by removing “rest time” which is one of the eliminated hours, according to Sen. Ronnie Chance of Tyrone, one of Deal’s floor leaders in the Senate.

The proposal calls for the HOPE scholarship to cover 90 percent of each students’ tuition, whereas the program previously covered all of tuition for those maintaining a 3.0 grade point average. Also, HOPE funds will no longer cover books, fees or remedial classes.

The legislation was crafted to create a 100 percent HOPE tuition coverage for students who maintain a 3.7 grade point average or higher. Such students will be designated as Zell Miller Scholars, an honor named after former Gov. Miller, who was the creator of the HOPE Scholarship program.

Also the legislation will trim the sales commission paid to lottery retailers and cap bonuses given to lottery employees.

To help fill the gap created by the decrease in HOPE payments, the state is creating a low-interest loan program for students that will allow for the student loans to be forgiven if the student becomes a certified teacher and teaches in a public K-12 school in the field of science, math or engineering.

The legislation contemplates setting aside $10 million for those loans with the state securing another $10 million in funding.

Critics of the HOPE and Pre-K cuts are calling them “drastic” but Chance said that’s not the case, particularly since if the cuts aren’t made, the programs would cease to exist.

“The only thing that’s drastic is we have to save it,” Chance said. “... We’re trying to stretch HOPE so we don’t have to go through this again in a few years.”

Furthermore, the Pre-K changes will allow the state to create room for 5,000 more students, Chance said. That will cut the statewide waiting list by more than half.

“We’ve got to get to these kids early,” Chance said of the importance of the Pre-K program. “If we don’t get them in Pre-K, they’ll never be a HOPE recipient or a Zell Miller Scholar.”

“In 2010 the lottery gave more than almost $350,000 to its five highest-paid employees,” Chance said. “The lottery gives about $2 million in bonuses and we can’t sustain that. That’s absolutely crazy.”

Retailers who sell Georgia Lottery tickets will also feel some of the pain, as their commission on gross sales will drop from an average of 7 percent to a maximum cap of 5 percent.

“By just reducing that 1 percent saves $30 million,” Chance said.

Deal’s legislation also would limit the bonuses offered to Georgia Lottery employees to no more than 25 percent of their base compensation, and bonuses would be conditioned on an increase in net proceeds from the prior year that were transferred to the Lottery for Education account.

Chance said the bonuses and salaries paid to Lottery employees had been a significant concern of his, but he thinks the governor’s bill will address those problems.

Chance said he was particularly pleased that the bill has bipartisan support, as long-serving Rep. Calvin Smyre was one of several Democrats to support the changes along with House minority leader Stacey Abrams.

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