(Atlanta, Ga.) - February 22, 2011 - Democratic lawmakers joined today with Republican leadership to push changes designed to save the HOPE scholarship program.
"We are happy to have found a bi-partisan solution to save the nation's most valuable higher education scholarship program," said House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams. "We will join with our Republican colleagues by supporting an initiative offered by Gov. Nathan Deal."
Abrams said she and her colleagues were encouraged by the input they had from voters during their first HOPE listening tour event that took place in Cobb County on Monday, Feb. 21.
Democrats developed a plan to solicit feedback from constituents to draw attention to their efforts to save the Hope Scholarship program. The scholarship fund currently faces a $243 million budget shortfall and cash reserves are projected to run out by 2013.
Georgia's HOPE scholarship is the largest merit-based scholarship program in the United States. Implemented in 1993, HOPE has covered full tuition and a portion of fees and textbooks for more than 1.3 million Georgia students.
"Studies have shown that an educated population is a pre-requisite for a strong economy. Georgia needs both. Too much is at stake for our students, our businesses and our families," said Stuckey-Benfield, whose youngest child is currently enrolled in lottery-funded pre-K program.
Since the start of the current legislative session, more than 40 Democratic lawmakers have hosted town hall meetings to discuss issues being debated at the Capitol. The latest round of Democratic public forums is focused exclusively on proposed budget cuts to HOPE and pre-K programs.
"HOPE is one of Georgia's best initiatives for ensuring our success in educational attainment and economic development," said Rep. Calvin Smyre, chairman emeritus of the House Democratic Caucus. "However, we have come to a point where the expenditures of the program far exceed the revenue. In order to save this Democratic program for all, we must make some changes."
Democrats support the Governor's efforts to reform HOPE, but with careful attention to all aspects of the program, including remedial courses for technical colleges, grandfathering of proprietary schools, expansion of slots for pre-K and the creation of a 1 percent loan program.
"If we reduce HOPE funding, Georgians most in need should have the ability to have access funds with low interest rates," said Rep. Al Williams.
"It's the responsibility of elected officials to listen to our constituents, put our heads together, and come up with the best way to save the pre-K and HOPE for future generations," said Rep. Brian Thomas, chairman of the Democratic Caucus. "We believe we have done this and in a way that Georgians have asked us to - through a bi-partisan effort.
Democrats said they are committed to safeguarding the HOPE scholarship for current and future generations.
"A temporary budget crunch ought not be the end to a permanent benefit to Georgia's students and schools. I'm confident that we can find a way to meet our responsibilities while continuing to retain Georgia's best and brightest college students," said Rep. Stacey Evans, who co-chaired the House Democrats HOPE committee and co-hosted the Cobb County HOPE town hall. ###