The Senate Higher Education Committee approved the legislation 5-2 on a party-line vote Friday. The measure is expected to face a vote by the full Senate next week.
Designed to keep the state's cash-strapped HOPE scholarship afloat, the bill would scale back awards for all but the top-performing students. Gov. Nathan Deal introduced the proposal less than two weeks ago and it is speeding through the General Assembly.
The lottery-funded HOPE and pre-K programs have outgrown lottery revenues and will go broke by next year without changes. A predicted shortfall for the programs tops $300 million for next year.
Democrats complained Friday that they were blocked from offering amendments.
"My view is that they are pushing this as fast as they are because the longer we look at the bill the worse it gets," said state Sen. Jason Carter, of Decatur. "They don't want that scrutiny."
But Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Jim Butterworth said the chamber had amended the bill to make needed technical changes. The Cornelia Republican said parents and students need as much time as possible to plan for colleges costs next fall.
"I am comfortable with proceeding," he said. "We've had deliberations."
Under the bill, HOPE would be tied to lottery revenue, not tuition. For this coming fall, it will be 90 percent of current tuition levels. It will not cover expected tuition hikes. Students are also losing money for books and fees.
Free public college tuition would be available to students with a GPA of at least 3.7 and a minimum 1200 on the SAT. About 10 percent of current recipients meet those standards.
Those attending private colleges in Georgia would see their awards shrink from $4,000 to $3,600.
Senate Democrats want to place an income cap on HOPE, maintaining the full scholarship for families making up to $140,000, or about 94 percent of Georgians. They also want to give full tuition, books and fees to the top 3 percent of graduates from every high school in the state.
Deal has said he wants to keep the program merit-based, without a cap on income. Deal argues that even with the changes HOPE will remain among the most generous scholarship programs in the country.
The bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee, which will determine when it comes to the Senate floor. The bill has already cleared the House but the chamber will have to take up the changes added in the Senate.
Associated Press Writer Errin Haines
House Bill 326: www.legis.ga.gov