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Options for saving programs bring political risks

ATLANTA --- House Speaker David Ralston ranks solving the revenue shortage of Georgia's lottery-funded education programs as one of his top-four priorities for the coming legislative session.

That may be good news for supporters of the HOPE Scholarship and Pre-K programs but bad news for some of their beneficiaries. And bad news for anyone always translates into the risk for politicians that those frustrations will reverberate in the voting booth.

From a timing perspective, Ralston demonstrates political maturity.

First, the programs are in need of shoring up sooner or later. They have begun using reserves for the first time this year to fund the increasingly expensive programs even though the Georgia Lottery Corp. continues to set records for revenues.

Every time the Board of Regents raises tuition to counter cuts in its taxpayer appropriations, HOPE takes another hit.

Second, Ralston's Republicans are riding high on their own record setting, election success they hope will help overcome any anger they create with unpopular solutions. Just as importantly, Ralston said days after the election that voters expect Republicans to produce results or face the same rejection Democrats just got.

To equip him and other policy makers, the Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies released a 103-page study this month. It looks at the issue from two directions: first, whether to shift lottery proceeds from HOPE to Pre-K or vice versa; and second, whether to cut benefits various ways.

There is, of course, a third set of options, namely finding new revenue. It could come from either the state's general budget, which is already strapped for cash, or from expanding gambling through legalization of casinos or horserace betting.

During the campaign, Gov.-elect Nathan Deal offered seemingly contradictory responses when asked about expanded gambling. That suggests that he could be convinced to support it under the right circumstances.

One change in circumstances is Georgia's recent shift to a wholly red state. Not because Republicans are generally more supportive of betting but because it indicates that the electorate has changed.

The options in the Georgia State study may come with more political risks these days than gambling does and may no longer be dead-set against new forms of gaming.

The study's authors point to research showing that there is evidence that both HOPE and Pre-K are somewhat effective in their aims. However, the evidence is more convincing that HOPE works than that Pre-K does.

HOPE has indeed increased high-school performance, the number of students attending college and kept more of the state's brightest young people in state for college and the beginning of their careers. The size of the impact in those areas is usually measured in single-digit percentages, but it's all positive.

Gauging Pre-K is tougher because the studies examining what used to be called nursery school show mixed results.

Educators have long known that the most decisive factor in a child's performance is the education level of the mother. Programs like Pre-K aim to overcome that.

Legislators may consider the goal too important to abandon by shifting money from Pre-K to HOPE, especially since the mixed results are better than completely negative results. Besides, even if the program doesn't work at all, Republican families like having a year of free childcare as much as Democratic families do.

If scrapping one program to save the other isn't a likely option, what about cutting benefits? The Georgia State authors examine eight ways for HOPE and three for Pre-K. They range from raising eligibility in academic or income terms to limit the beneficiaries, reducing the time period from four years to three for college tuition, to once again requiring college students apply for federal Pell grants and subtracting those amounts from the HOPE payout.

Democrats repeatedly oppose benefit cuts, but they favor income limits over higher academic requirements. Republicans oppose income criteria and like academic standards. Both parties recognize the demographics of their supporters.

Of course, Republicans are now in charge and may believe that the objections raised by Democrats won't have an impact on Election Day two years from now.

Ralston hasn't said what he is thinking, and the House Education Committee hasn't prefiled any legislation yet.

Still, when the debate comes, it is likely to be contentious as always, making it one of the major issues of the coming legislative session.

(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering the Capitol since 1998. He covered his first Georgia campaigns in 1976. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com or (404) 589-8424.)



Web posted on Thursday, November 25, 2010













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