Gov. Nathan Deal and Democrats claimed a rare joint victory this week. But the bipartisan announcement on a limited HOPE expansion wasn’t without some political drama.
In a made-for-TV announcement, Deal stood in his office Thursday with more than a dozen legislators to announce that Georgia lottery proceeds have increased enough for the state to lower the requirements for technical college HOPE grants. By returning the threshold to a 2.0 GPA after having raised it to a 3.0 a few years ago, the program will benefit several thousand students who do not now qualify.
Deal said the proposal is a key component of growing the workforce. Democratic lawmakers framed it as a key investment in growing the middle class.
No tension there. The tension was more in who wasn’t in the room: Senate Democratic leaders.
While Democrats in both chambers have pushed for HOPE expansion since Republicans curtailed the generosity of the program when lottery proceeds tanked, the Democrats highlighted in Deal’s office Thursday came from the House.
Senate Democrats have been particularly aggressive this year in their call’s for expanding HOPE. They want the value of the grants restored to full tuition, and they want the top 3 percent of Georgia high school classes to be eligible, a proposal that would expand the geographic reach. Deal said Thursday that those proposals could threaten HOPE’s solvency.
Perhaps more important than Senate Democrats’ HOPE position is that the caucus has blistered Deal publicly for his budget proposals, particularly cuts to certain Medicaid and public health programs, along with assertions that the governor has not spent enough on public K-12 education. House Democrats, meanwhile, have been more muted in their critiques.
House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams (D-Atlanta) said recently, “The majority’s job is to govern,” while the minority “collaborates where we can.” Abrams stood just feet from Deal when he announced the HOPE expansion.
In a recent statement, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson telegraphed how the governor’s sees the opposition party: “Gov. Deal has worked cooperatively with Democrats who, like him, are more interested in helping Georgia move forward than in scoring cheap political points.”
ODDS AND ENDS:
House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) amended his proposed lobbying rules by exempting unpaid or volunteer lobbyists who work five or fewer days a year from being forced to officially register as lobbyists and disclose their spending. The Republican leader said the changes should prevent people who come to the Statehouse infrequently from becoming ensnared by regulations meant for paid lobbyists. Common Cause Georgia objected to the changes, saying people who do not benefit from legislation should not have to register as lobbyists. The House Rules Committee is expected to review the plan next week.
The first group of Georgia lawmakers who got an opportunity to talk about guns in schools this session wasn’t comfortable enough to vote on the issue. Rep. Paul Battles wants to let local school boards decide whether to designate certain administrators to carry weapons on campus, provided the employees get firearms training. Opinions on the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee varied, but Chairman Allen Powell decided to put off any vote. Instead, he appointed a special subcommittee that intends to fashion a substitute version that clarifies several questions: What kind of training would be required — proficiency and safety only or also scenario training on when to use the weapon? What kind of weapons could principals have? What affect would the policies have on school systems’ insurance cost? Would employees have a choice if a school board designated them to fill the protective role? Powell told Battles the revised bill will get a vote.
An amended $19 billion budget plan for Georgia will be headed to the state Senate. House lawmakers voted 145-18 on Friday to adopt a new spending plan for the financial year ending in June. The plan now goes before the state Senate for approval. The Republicans who control the House largely stuck to a spending blueprint from GOP Gov. Nathan Deal.
Lawmakers this week paused to remember former House Speaker Pro Tempore Jack Connell, an Augusta Democrat who died Wednesday at the age of 93. Connell served 26 years in the House’s second-highest post. Speaker David Ralston said that was the longest tenure as House pro tem of a state legislature in American history. Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, described Connell as “a distinguished public servant and a true Southern gentleman.”
Senators, meanwhile, used their wardrobes to honor one of their former members. John Bulloch, a Republican from Ochlocknee in south Georgia, resigned in December. He had been hospitalized last fall with meningitis. Senators on Friday abandoned their usual dress code and honored Bulloch by wearing blue jeans. Several members also sported boots.
“It was never my intent to make people pay a fee for coming down here to see their own representative or their own senator, or if they come on a limited basis. Absolutely not the intent,” House Speaker David Ralston on amendments to his proposed lobbying rules.
The House Rules Committee is expected to review Ralston’s proposals on lobbying rules next week. If they approve the legislation, it would set the stage for a floor vote.