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HOPE bill goes to Gov. Deal

ATLANTA, Ga. -- A bill overhauling the HOPE scholarship is set to become law after the House passed it Thursday and Gov. Nathan Deal said he would sign it next week.

The legislation -- which will cut scholarships for all but the brightest students -- will keep the cash-strapped program afloat for a new generation of Georgians, the governor said.

"We expect you to work hard, we expect you to get good grades and if you do you will be rewarded with a HOPE scholarship," Deal told reporters at the state Capitol. He said the changes would ensure that the lottery-funded program is alive not just for current HOPE scholars but for "their younger brothers and sisters who will be coming after them."

The House voted 136-32 to give final passage to the legislation, agreeing to changes made in the state Senate. Introduced a little more than two weeks ago, the bill moved with unusual speed in the General Assembly, where such major legislation can often sit in committee until the 11th hour.

Since 1993, the HOPE scholarship has sent more than 1 million Georgians to college and been imitated by more than a dozen states.

Until now, HOPE has provided free public college tuition to students with a 3.0 grade point average or better. But lottery proceeds haven't kept pace with rising tuition and skyrocketing enrollment and the program was set to go broke.

The bill would cut the scholarships to 90 percent for all but the brightest students, though that figure doesn't account for expected double-digit tuition increases at some public colleges this fall.

Students who earn a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 on the SAT -- and the valedictorian and salutatorian at each high school -- would also get a full scholarship.

The plan would trim HOPE for students attending private colleges in Georgia from $4,000 to $3,600.

Students whose grades slip while in college would have only one chance to win the scholarship back. High school students would need to take more rigorous classes to qualify for HOPE. And technical college students who receive HOPE grants would for the first time need to demonstrate they are earning good grades.

The bill also places limits on how much retailers can collect from selling winning tickets and limits the bonuses given to Georgia Lottery officials.

Some Democrats have argued the plan is unfair to poor and minority students. They were unable to add on amendments in the state Senate that would have awarded full scholarships to a larger number of students and forced the Lottery Corp. to put more money into the education account.

In the House, Democratic leaders have been on board and legislators agreed to final passage without any debate.

The chamber erupted in applause when the bill passed.

Deal said that even with the changes, HOPE would remain one of the most generous scholarship programs in the nation.

But he stopped short of urging Georgians to play the lottery to prop up HOPE and acknowledged that he himself doesn't play.