ATLANTA - After nearly four hours of debate, the Senate voted 35-20 along party lines to pass House Bill 326, which would cut the amount of the scholarship for all but the very brightest students and make other changes to keep the program from going broke.
Some college students were tossed out of the Senate gallery for disrupting the debate. One student was arrested, and others were led off grounds by Capitol police.
Senators approved four Republican-backed amendments to the bill, including offering low-interest loans to cover the difference between tuition and the amount of the HOPE award.
Students who maintain a 3.0 GPA would still get HOPE, but it wouldn't cover all tuition. Instead, the amount would be tied to lottery revenue and could vary annually. For this fall, students would receive 90 percent of current tuition rates, meaning the scholarship wouldn't cover double-digit hikes expected at some campuses.
Another amendment would extend a new Zell Miller Scholarship to the top two graduates from each high school. Earlier versions of the bill would award the full-tuition scholarships only to those who graduate from high school with at least a 3.7 GPA and a math and verbal SAT score of 1200 or an ACT score of 26. Now both groups of high-achievers would be eligible. To keep the award, they would have to maintain a 3.3 GPA in college.
HB 326 must return to the House because of the changes made by the Senate. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, the bill's sponsor, said he did not expect any problems and that it could be taken up Thursday. The bill received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House.
The bill would eliminate money for books and mandatory fees. The scholarship would only cover remedial courses offered in the technical college system, not the University System of Georgia. Students currently have unlimited chances to regain the scholarship, but under HB 326 they would have just one.
It would also cut the commission retailers receive and scale back bonuses for lottery officials.