It’s unclear who Georgia’s next governor will be, but whoever it is, he or she got an unwelcome reminder on Monday of just how dire the state’s budget picture is.
That reminder came via the news that the state’s ultra-popular HOPE Scholarship program for college and pre-K students is facing a revenue shortfall of more than a half-billion dollars over the next two years. Yes, billion.
The HOPE program was implemented by then-Gov. Zell Miller and provides college scholarships to students who maintain a “B” average. It also helps the state’s youngest students get off on the right track via pre-K enrollment.
The program is funded by the state lottery, and there’s the rub: Ticket sales are stagnant, no doubt due to the equally stagnant economy. The state is expecting a lotto-revenue shortfall of $243 million for FY11 and $317 in FY12.
The chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, state Rep. Len Walker, told reporters he was stunned by the numbers.
“This is not a train wreck that is about to happen — the train wreck has happened,” Walker said after the four-hour meeting at the Capitol. “We’re talking about some frightening figures that will be in place in less than one year.”
Yes, the HOPE program has a budget reserve, and dipped into it this year to the tune of some $100 million, but the expected deficits would nearly drain the remainder of that fund.
Lawmakers are mulling several options, none of them appealing. They could do away with the book and fee stipends; they could use income guidelines to determine eligibility; or they could convert the program to a straight-forward grant, rather than tying it to tuition rates. The latter option, in fact, would remove what till now has been an inflationary pressure on tuition costs. That is, University System officials have known that if tuition went up, the state likely would up the HOPE scholarship dollars as well, which translates into a revenue gain for their schools. Converting the program to a grant would force colleges to tighten their belts and/or pass the full cost of any tuition increases directly onto students and their parents.
As for impacts at the pre-K level, cuts in HOPE funding probably would mean longer waiting lists for admission. And at present, the state already has 7,200 more aspiring pre-K students than it has spaces for, according to Holly Robinson, commissioner of the Department of Early Care and Learning.
Clearly, HOPE is heading for hard times, and soon, unless the state makes some unpleasant decisions. But if HOPE is to be saved, they must be made.
—Marietta Daily Journal