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GOP amendments fail in House

camie.young

@gwinnettdailypost.com

ATLANTA - Using a rare chance to flex their muscles, House Democrats united Monday to block two constitutional amendments sought by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and his GOP legislative allies.

Republicans failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass amendments aimed at protecting the HOPE Scholarship program and allowing religious groups to use state funds to deliver social services.

During a marathon Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to clear at least one legislative chamber, GOP leaders garnered 102 votes for the HOPE amendment - 18 short of a two-thirds majority in the 180-seat lower chamber - and only 95 for Perdue's faith-based initiative.

Republicans used a procedural move Monday afternoon to leave open a chance to revive the HOPE amendment later in the day. But as of press time, the measure had not been brought back for reconsideration.

The HOPE amendment would prohibit spending the proceeds of the Georgia Lottery on anything but HOPE scholarships and the state's pre-kindergarten program, taking away the possibility of using the funds for school technology and building projects.

While the money has not been spent on technology and construction for several years, $1.8 billion did go to those uses in the past, including putting computers in classrooms, adding satellites and metal detectors at schools and other programs.

Albany's Cheehaw Park Education Center was built with lottery funds.

But Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, said the viability of the scholarships was more important than "pork-barrel'' projects.

HOPE's financial outlook became a concern three years ago when projections showed demand on scholarships could outpace lottery revenues. Since then, however, lottery sales have regained their earlier vigor.

"I've got to ask myself, 'Do I want it (Cheehaw) funded this way or through the usual appropriations process?''' Rynders said. "I'm going to vote to send the kids to college. This issue is about our children and our future.''

Rep. Kathy Ashe, D-Atlanta, pointed out that a 1998 constitutional amendment stipulates that no HOPE money can go to technology or capital projects until the pre-kindergarten program and HOPE scholarship programs are fully funded.

"This amendment seems to be a solution looking for a problem,'' she said. "This does nothing the constitution hasn't already done.''

House Republicans introduced the HOPE amendment after the proposal failed to get by Senate Democrats early in this year's session.

The governor's "faith-based'' initiative, meanwhile, failed to get by legislative Democrats for the third year in a row.

Most of the arguments on both sides were the same as during previous sessions.

Republicans argued that religious charities do a better job than government serving the needy because they're less encumbered by bureaucracy and are motivated by faith.

But several GOP lawmakers warned that faith-based agencies now delivering human services in Georgia constantly face the threat of a lawsuit because they are not protected by the state constitution.

"All it takes is one lawsuit and every one of those faith-based organizations would be in danger of losing the state funding they're receiving,'' said Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette.

But Democrats said religious charities already are protected legally in Georgia.

Rep. Rob Teilhet, D-Smyrna, cited a ruling handed down by the state Supreme Court in January that upheld a lease agreement between Atlanta's school district and a church. The district was seeking space for a kindergarten program.

"Faith-based service providers can perform these services through contracts with the state and local governments,'' Teilhet said. "All is right with the world on this issue.''

The two parties also clashed over private school vouchers. Democrats charged that the amendment is a "back-door'' plot to sneak vouchers into Georgia, while Republicans countered that, with their superior numbers, they don't need to rely on subterfuge.

Only two Democrats supported the amendment, while three Republicans voted "no.''

One of those, Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta, said faith-based agencies accepting state money would "secularize'' the church. Under the amendment, religious groups would not be able to use public funds to proselytize and would not be able to make hiring decisions based on an applicant's religious faith.

"Government funds always come with strings attached or, should I say, chains,'' he said.