Senate Democrats Vow To "Take To The Streets" In Battle over HOPE Reforms
Minority Senate Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) to Deal: "We'll take to the streets if we have to."
ATLANTA -- Gov. Nathan Deal (R) [pictured left] signed HB 326, a major reform package to the HOPE Scholarship on Tuesday, but some Senate Democrats vowed in a recent press conference to keep fighting the reforms.
"With today’s signing, we have closed a $300 million shortfall in the next year, we have pulled HOPE and Georgia Pre-K from the brink of bankruptcy and we have preserved our state’s elite status for having the most generous benefit programs in the nation," Deal said.
"Georgians are blessed to have legislative leaders who put aside politics to craft a new law of generational importance," the conservative governor asserted.
But State Senate Democrats held a press conference on Friday in front of the ACE Food Store at 999 Donald Lee Hollowell, to criticize the final HOPE reform package which had been passed the Georgia General Assembly -- with broad bi-partisan support -- in advance of Deal's expected signature.
SOME DEMS DON'T LIKE DEAL'S KIND OF "LOST" HOPE
Minority Senate Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) told reporters that Democrats were planning to introduce legislation to repeal HB 326 once the Governor signed the bill. Such a repeal has a slim chance of passing, given the legislative history so far, and the Republican nearly two-thirds majority in both chambers.
They also vowed to continue taking their case to the public. "We are not going to stop. We are bringing the struggle to the streets," Brown threatened.
"There are more Bankheads than Buckheads," Brown [pictured right] added. "People here have aspirations. What we have done with the Governor's plan is reduce their hopes and aspirations. They've lost hope to get out of this community."
The location of the press conference, in the downtrodden, inner city Atlanta neighborhood of Vine City, was chosen because ACE Food Store is one of the top-selling retailers for lottery tickets. Georgia Lottery Corporation profits fund the HOPE Scholarship.
Brown contends that customers from the low-income neighborhoods purchase the bulk of lottery tickets sold in Georgia.
"Notice the people in this community who are investing in HOPE," Brown bellowed. "Look at the sales. If we [minorities] are good enough to invest in the lottery, then our children are good enough to receive the benefits."
"We're not going to sit idly by and allow the redistribution of wealth [from the poor to the wealthy] without a fight," State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) said.
Democrats upset with the reform bill are concerned about the changes to HOPE, which they argue will disproportionately burden children from working class families.
They claim that the HOPE Scholarship was originally designed to assist children of working class and middle class families attend college; later it was expanded to include all Georgia children.
Under the HOPE reforms, the amount of the HOPE scholarship money received is tied to lottery revenues, instead of to the cost of tuition. Next year, a HOPE scholarship will cover 90 percent of tuition costs on average; however, in future years, as tuition costs keep increasing, the scholarship will cover a smaller and smaller proportion of average tuition. Democrats in opposition to the new reforms claim the decrease in benefits will disproportionately burden children from working families in favor of the wealthy.
Certain students who meet challenging merit-based criteria, such as obtaining a score of at least 1200 on the SAT test, will still be able to receive 100 percent of tuition under the reformed HOPE program. Because students from upper-income families have a better chance of scoring that high on the SAT, those opposition Democrats argue that this is another way that the HOPE reforms amount to a wealth transfer.
BUTTERWORTH DEFENDS HOPE REFORMS
"We have placed a shared burden on a lot of different shoulders," countered State Sen. Jim Butterworth (R-Cornelia), [pictured left] Chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, referring to the Republican proposal. Butterworth said the plan reduces benefits for students regardless of their income level while cutting down retailer profits and limiting Lottery Corporation executive bonuses.
"We have a program that's using up its surplus fairly fast," Butterworth said. "We have to reform or this program will be completely gone [insolvent] in one and a half years."
"Last year HOPE brought in $869 million dollars in lottery revenue, but spent $1.2 billion on educational expenses for students," Butterworth explained.
PULBIC ANGST SURFACES IN HEARINGS, STUDENTS PROTEST
In testimony to the Senate Committee, activist Janice Mathis of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition said she sees many college students at University of Georgia, Athens, driving fancy cars and living in "mini-mansions." Mathis argued that these students’ parents do not need the HOPE scholarship to send their children to school and that the scholarship is allowing those students to enjoy luxury items.
Meanwhile, numerous college students from all over Metro Atlanta protested inside and outside the legislature throughout the legislative debate, and some made passionate speeches in Committee testimony.
Andrew Epstein, 23, a graduate student in history at the University of Georgia, was arrested last Tuesday at the Capitol during the State Senate floor debate of HB 326. Epstein was one of several students who were chanting in the hallway while being escorted out of the Capitol, after some students unfurled banners in the Senate.
Epstein allegedly shouted, "Don’t touch me," after Capitol police grabbed him.
Controversial photographs show Capitol cops picked him up and threw him to the ground.
BI-PARTISAN HOPE BACKERS
But some Democrats in the General Assembly chose to accept the severity of Republican reforms early in the process, including Minority House Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta), who co-sponsored the original State House bill. Abrams says this was part of a strategy to win a seat at the table and influence the final package.
Deal rewarded Abrams by agreeing to continue funding full days of pre-K, instead of half-days, which were originally proposed.
HB 326, introduced by House Rep. Doug Collins (R-Gainesville) only three weeks ago, passed the Georgia House, by a vote of 152 to 22 on March 1.
Metro Atlanta area Democrats including Roberta Abdul-Salaam, Kathy Ashe, Tyrone Brooks, Dee Hawkins-Daigler, Stacey Evans, Nikki Randall, Sandra Scott, Pam Stephenson, and Gloria Tinubu, were among the 22 no votes.
While the Republican HOPE reform package attempts to encourage the Georgia Lottery Corporation to put more money into the educational fund by incentivizing employee bonuses, the reforms do not require the Corporation to pay any more into the educational fund each year.
The Corporation currently only pays 24 percent of lottery proceeds into the educational fund each annually.
During the State Sen. Committee hearing, Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) noted that their educational contribution of 24 percent is well below the national average of 29 percent.
"How much have we been able to verify the claims of the corporation?" Orrock asked. "Now that's a big gap. I don't feel assured that we have our arms around the Corporation. We've been aghast at the bonuses they've [Ga. Lottery executives] been given."
"In the law, they should be shooting for 35 percent. They've been so far behind for so long," Orrock [pictured right] said.
Meanwhile, according to the Atlanta Unfiltered website, Lottery Corporation CEO Margaret Defrancisco made $496,776 in 2010.
In response to a question from this reporter at Friday’s press conference, State Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) said that when HB 326 appeared on the Senate floor, Democrats introduced an amendment that would have mandated the Corporation to pay an additional 1.5 percent per year.
The amendment would have required at least 30 percent of the Corporation proceeds to be paid into the Fund each year by 2015.
Like each of the Democratic amendments in the full Senate, this one was defeated on party lines, Carter lamented.
But Butterworth wouldn’t allow for amendments to be considered in Senate Committee.
Butterworth emphasized his support for the HOPE scholarship. "There is a benefit. If you want to go to college, it is a relief to not be overly concerned with how you're going to pay for it. That is a blessing."
"Please understand, I have four children and I'd love for each and every one of them to qualify. But something has to be done," he said.
"We are committed to doing this and doing it right. It's not a partisan issue. It's not a Black and White issue. If we didn't have HOPE and we came to you with a new proposal that we'll pay 90 percent of your tuition, you'd be so happy," Sen. Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone) offered.
Collins emphasized that the HOPE Scholarship does not offset the Federal Pell Grant, which low-income students can also receive for college.
To be sure, additional need-based federal aid for college is also available through the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and federal loan programs. Undergraduates also may qualify for a variety of private scholarship programs, which can be merit-based, need-based, or both.
Still, HOPE reform opponents say many students rely on these additional forms of aid for other educational costs such as fees, room, board, books, transportation, and other costs. Therefore, many are counting on in-state tuition to be fully covered by HOPE.