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HOPE funds lag behind expenses

LOGANVILLE -- The HOPE Scholarship might not be able to provide any money for textbooks or fees for next year's college freshmen, state Rep. Len Walker, R-Loganville, told the Grayson High School PTSA on Thursday evening.

Georgia lottery revenues, which fund the HOPE Scholarship and the Georgia Pre-K programs, have been steadily climbing, but they aren't growing fast enough, Walker said.

"The Georgia lottery is one of the best run lotteries in all the world. In my opinion, the lottery commission has done a commendable job," Walker said. "The revenues have inched up ... but the lottery revenues are not growing at a pace to keep up with the expenditures."

Last year, the lottery revenues were about $881 million. The expenditures, however, totaled more than $1 billion. The state had to use a chunk of the lottery's unrestricted reserves to make up the difference, Walker said.

Projections show the lottery revenues will stay relatively stagnant, while lottery expenditures will climb to more than $1.2 billion by fiscal year 2012, which begins in less than a year. That will deplete the unrestricted reserve, and the lottery's other two reserves will drop to about $370 million -- less than half of where they were at the beginning of this fiscal year.

Walker, the chairman of the House higher education committee, said he finds this alarming, but he assured parents the HOPE Scholarship isn't going anywhere.

"It's not going away," Walker said, "... but some adjustments are going to have to be made. ... This is an issue that has to be answered right now."

Legislators will be examining a number of options when the General Assembly convenes in January, Walker said. Trigger mechanisms for benefit reductions in case of declining fund availability may have to be accelerated.

Currently, the HOPE Scholarship provides for the cost of tuition at a public college or university, pays for mandatory fees (capped at the January 2004 level) and gives students $150 per semester for books. It's possible the book award and fee payments may be eliminated.

The program may also be amended so that people who have a bachelor's degree cannot receive the HOPE Grant if they enroll in a technical college.

Loganville resident Leigh Ann Brandenburg, whose son is a senior at Grayson High, said the information is upsetting.

"He's worked hard for (the past) three years, and I'd just hate for him to be penalized," she said. "I think we can swing the room and board if his classes are paid for, but the economy has affected everyone. I don't want him penalized for doing the right thing."

Rebecca Branstetter, the co-president of the Grayson High PTSA, said this fall is the perfect time for residents to contact legislators with their ideas and concerns about the future of the HOPE Scholarship.

Branstetter said the PTSA invited Walker to speak because the organization is interested in bringing meaningful conversation into the community.

"This is a topic that will touch every student and every parent in this school," she said.