Capitol Recap: Hope fades for full funding of Georgia’s HOPE scholarships

State House backs plan to increase support to 95% of tuition

You should excuse Georgia college students for feeling less than hopeful that the state will restore full funding for the HOPE scholarship.

They probably got their hopes up a few months ago when Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled his budget for the upcoming fiscal year with a call to at least temporarily end changes made to the program in 2011 when it looked like its funds were in danger of drying up.

Back then, Kemp’s predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal, led a bipartisan effort to revamp the Georgia Lottery-funded program by tightening eligibility requirements and reducing award payouts.

Before the overhaul, students who maintained at least a “B” average received free in-state tuition. That changed, so only recipients of Zell Miller awards — students who scored at least 1,200 on their SAT test and had a minimum grade-point average of 3.7 — received the full payout. Other HOPE scholars now get 90% of the tuition.

When Kemp announced his plan, Democrats praised it, and GOP lawmakers pledged their support.

Republicans who control the House must have forgot.

They voted for a version of the budget that boosted HOPE scholarships from 90% to 95% of tuition, with the Zell Miller scholars still the only ones getting full tuition.

House leaders say it gives students extra incentive to strive for the Zell Miller scholarship. For those who fall short of such lofty goals, they said, the remaining tuition isn’t a financial burden on families.

Questioning their thinking was Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans, who campaigned for governor five years ago on a promise to reverse cuts to the program.

“Why would we deprive tuition coverage for all HOPE scholars?” she asked. “All of them have met a merit requirement, every single one of them has a 3.0 (GPA). And every single one of them is putting in the time and the effort.”

Money isn’t a problem, she said.

Restoring the funding to fully cover tuition for all HOPE scholars would amount to a $26 million expenditure in a $32.4 billion budget. She added that the lottery has $1.9 billion in reserve, including $1.1 billion that is unrestricted.

House leaders say they’re reluctant to reverse the cuts in an uncertain economy.

Kemp made it clear this past week that full funding remains a priority.

“I’ll continue to fight for my position, I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said, adding that he also understands the give-and-take of the Legislature. “We understand how that works. I feel certain that we’ll come to a really good solution for our students and for their families.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Final approval given to bill requiring active shooter drills in schools

Under House Bill 147, which cleared the state Senate this past week with bipartisan support, Georgia school calendars could grow even busier.

Between pop quizzes and school assemblies and recess, you could add active shooter drills.

“Intruder alert” drills would be required in all public schools by Oct. 1 of each year.

It won’t matter if mom and dad object.

Schools would have the power to force students to participate even if parents protest.

State Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta, a former teacher and Atlanta school board member, warned that such drills can trigger trauma in children.

He sought an amendment to require schools to let parents opt their children out of the drills. The legislation says schools “may” let parents decline to have their children participate.

A handful of Republicans backed Esteves’ amendment, but it still failed.

In the words of state Sen. Mike Hodges, R-Brunswick, who carried the bill in the Senate, HB 147 “modernizes” safety protocols.

The bill, introduced at Gov. Brian Kemp’s request by state Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville, also encourages anti-gang training for educators.

Other failed amendments tried to delete the anti-gang language.

The bill would encourage Georgia colleges to teach prospective educators “multidisciplinary best practices” for safety and for “identifying and deterring” youth gangs. It also would call on the state to establish such training for qualified educators who want it.

Senate Minority Caucus Chairwoman Elena Parent of Atlanta voted for the bill, but she was hardly enthusiastic about it: She said it offers only “illusory” protection in schools and “highlights our failure” to control access to guns through universal background checks and other measures.

HB 147 is now headed to Kemp’s desk for his signature.

Georgia’s voter challenges law to face a court test

A federal judge will decide whether voter eligibility challenges lodged against hundreds of thousands of Georgians infringed on their rights.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled that a trial can go forward in a lawsuit pitting the voting rights group Fair Fight Action against True the Vote, a Texas-based organization that contested more than 300,000 voter registrations before the state’s U.S. Senate runoffs in 2021.

Jones said in an order that a trial is needed to decide whether True the Vote’s efforts to disqualify voters amounted to voter intimidation in violation of the Voting Rights Act. County election boards dismissed almost all the challenges.

Fair Fight Action alleges that True the Vote targeted racial minorities, offered a $1 million “bounty” for voter challengers, recruited Navy SEALs to oversee polling places and published challenged voters’ names.

True the Vote says its challenges were nondiscriminatory, the “bounty” money was intended for legal defense, voters were never directly contacted and Georgia law allows voter challenges.

Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder of True the Vote, is looking forward to the group’s day in court.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to tell the full story of what led True the Vote to help electors file voter challenges in Georgia,” Engelbrecht wrote in an email to supporters.

Engelbrecht’s opponents are also preparing.

“Our trial will focus on what matters: the protections promised by the Voting Rights Act and how we contend True the Vote violated those protections at the expense of Georgia voters,” Fair Fight PAC Executive Director Cianti Stewart-Reid said.

Fair Fight began opposing voter eligibility challenges in court in December 2020.

Challenges keep coming, though.

Republican activists sought to disqualify an additional 92,000 registrations before last year’s general election. Again, county election boards dismissed most of them.

Credit: Georgia Senate Press Office

Credit: Georgia Senate Press Office

Proposal seeks ban on out-of-state travel for exiting lt. gov, senators

Georgia Senate leaders have proposed a ban on chamber-funded out-of-state trips by the lieutenant governor and senators near the end of their terms in office.

Senate Resolution 334 follows an internal investigation that was launched after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in February that outgoing Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and then-Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller led a 14-person delegation on an economic development trip to Europe after the 2022 elections. The two were weeks away from leaving office.

The Senate approved legislation at the end of the 2022 session to create a special committee that later took the trip, and Miller was named chairman of the group.

Despite initial efforts by the General Assembly to hide the cost of the trip, the AJC found that the final bill to taxpayers was about $110,000.

The trip to Germany and the United Kingdom occurred Nov. 12-19, and the group met with government and business officials, toured training schools and other facilities, and attended receptions.

In response to AJC stories about the trip and its expenses, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy, the sponsor of SR 334, called for an investigation into how taxpayers got stuck with the tab.

A report from the investigation said the trip had “the appearance of nothing more than a taxpayer-funded vacation” for Duncan and Miller.

It also said Miller, whom Jones defeated in the 2022 GOP primary for lieutenant governor, chaired a committee of Senate leaders that was supposed to approve any taxpayer-funded out-of-state travel. It said committee policy barred the use of Senate funds for international travel, and that the European trip’s cost exceeded limits on how much could be spent on out-of-state travel.

The report recommended changes to how the Senate spends and accounts for the millions of dollars it receives in taxpayer funds.

That’s a big deal because the General Assembly gave itself an exemption from the state’s Open Records Act and keeps a tight lid on information about how it spends its money — which in this year’s budget amounts to roughly $53 million.

Senate leaders said that as of April 1, all out-of-state travel expenses paid with funds appropriated to the Senate and Jones’ office should be posted on the chamber’s website (https://www.legis.ga.gov/senate) at the end of each month.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Limits on treatment for transgender kids advances in Georgia House

Legislation passed the Georgia House this past week that would bar medical professionals from providing certain hormones such as testosterone and estrogen to transgender children seeking to align with their gender identity.

The bill, which would also bar some surgical treatments, set up a debate over who knows what’s best for the children involved.

State Sen. Carden Summers, the sponsor of Senate Bill 140, said during a committee hearing that the purpose of the legislation is to “make a pause” for transgender youth, requiring them to wait until they turn 18 to take hormonal or surgical steps toward gender transition.

“It’s also been proven that children who have gender dysphoria issues sort of outgrow them as they mature. ... They should get a little bit more mature before they make a decision that is 100% irreversible,” the Cordele Republican said.

The bill’s opponents cited the American Academy of Pediatrics’ support for assisting children with their gender transition.

“Why do you think the judgment of the Georgia state Legislature, and of you — 99% plus of which have no clinical training in pediatrics, whatsoever — should supersede what the American Academy of Pediatrics has determined to be the best practices for caring for gender-diverse children?” asked state Rep. Michelle Au, a Johns Creek Democrat and anesthesiologist.

Summers said it is the Legislature’s job to protect children.

Dr. Toni Kim, a pediatric endocrinologist, said she has treated dozens of transgender children. Kim said GOP lawmakers consulted her as they drafted the legislation. She backs SB 140.

Sometimes children are going through a phase, Kim said, and are “confused and are using this as what they think is the right solution when it’s not.”

Kim said she prescribes puberty blocking medicine, which would still be allowed under SB 140. She draws the line at hormone treatment for minors.

“My stance has always been ‘I will support you through the reversible part of this transition, but if you’re ready to move on to something more than that,’ I have advised for patients to go to larger medical centers,” Kim said.

Critics of the bill say children with gender dysphoria attempt suicide at higher rates.

Leonardo Hinnant, an 18-year-old transgender man from DeKalb County, supported that assertion.

“This bill would restrict essential care for transgender minors, care that is the reason that I know I am living today,” said Hinnant, who began undergoing hormone replacement therapy at age 13 and had a double mastectomy at 15. “The reality is this — if this bill passes, transgender children will die.”

County GOP meetings across state confirm party schism

Republicans who won in statewide elections in 2022 mostly got there by beating a rival further to the right in the GOP primary.

If that meant anything then, it didn’t seem to matter at recent county GOP meetings, where the conservative Georgia Republican Assembly and its allies scored victories over local leaders they saw as too moderate or ineffective.

Ahead of those votes, GRA head Alex Johnson urged supporters to send a message to “the political industry and their sycophants” who favor establishment Republicans over ideological purists.

Johnson claimed his group was successful in electing party leaders in Catoosa, Chatham, Cherokee, Coweta, DeKalb, Fayette, Fulton, Habersham, Spalding and Whitfield counties.

Those on the other side didn’t take it well.

“The Chatham County Republican Party is lost,” said Ken Yasger, a military veteran who suffered defeat in his bid there to become second vice-chair. “It’s now a locked room instead of a welcoming tent, which the moderates like myself were trying to achieve.”

Yasger campaigned as an alternative to what he described as “bigoted” views on LGBTQ inclusion and calls for a ban on abortion even in the case of rape or incest.

Jeanne Seaver, who ran last year for lieutenant governor, countered Yasger, saying victors in Chatham “wanted to grow the party and unite.”

At the end of a roughly nine-hour meeting in Cherokee County, the GRA laid claim to all the leadership posts. Former state Rep. Scot Turner noted that he’s “lived through difficult and contentious county conventions” in the past, but not like the one he described in colorful, not-for-newspapers language.

In Cobb County, three longtime delegates with mainstream leanings faced a challenge from Nathaniel Darnell, who made his mark at an anti-abortion rally in January where he gave a prayer thanking God for “relieving us” of state House Speaker David Ralston. Ralston died in November.

One of Darnell’s targets, Cobb Young Republicans leader Brittany Ellison, was later restored to the list. She wasn’t willing to let bygones be bygones.

“I’ve never been disrespected like that before,” she said.

Political expedience

Bottoms prepares to leave the White House: Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will exit her job as director of the White House’s Office Public Engagement at the end of the month. Bottoms, who is also a senior adviser to President Joe Biden, said she expects to continue working with him after she leaves. Bottoms spent some of her time in the job lobbying for Atlanta’s candidacy as site of the 2024 Democratic National Convention, which is ultimately Biden’s decision. “The president is very clear on where I stand,” she said.

Stamp of approval: A likeness of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, will appear on a stamp making its debut July 21, first at Atlanta’s main post office. The forever stamp’s preliminary design is based on a Time magazine cover.

Murphy’s lawmakers: Several members of the Georgia House signed onto a resolution urging the Baseball Hall of Fame to induct Atlanta Braves legend Dale Murphy as recognition for his “immensely positive impact on the sport.”