A proposal to make cuts to the HOPE scholarship is moving rapidly through the Georgia Legislature. The House Appropriations Committee approved the measure just two days after Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican legislative leaders introduced the bill. Under the proposal, HOPE would pay for full public college tuition for students who earn a 3.7 grade point average or better, who also receive at least a 1200 on the SAT. That represents roughly 10 percent of current HOPE recipients. For years, HOPE has provided free public college tuition to those students with a 3.0 grade point average or better. Under the GOP plan, students with at least a 3.0 grade point average would receive 90 percent of their tuition. HOPE would no longer pay for books, fees or remedial classes, under the plan. Pre-kindergarten programs would also see deep cuts. Deal's plan would reduce pre-k to a half-day program - down from 6 1/2 hours a day to four. The change would allow him to add 5,000 more slots to continue to make the program - which has a waiting list of some 10,000 4-year-olds - available to as many as possible.
ODDS & ENDS
-The House has voted 98-69 to approve legislation that would allow billboard owners to clear-cut trees blocking motorists from seeing their signs, a battle that has been fought for years at the state Capitol. Supporters say it's needed to protect economic development and jobs. Opponents say it would allow for the removal of old-growth trees and greenways that are now protected.
-The Senate has approved the $18 billion amended budget for the remainder of the fiscal year in a plan that includes more money for hospitals serving poor patients. The spending plan was approved 46-4. It must now be reconciled with a version approved earlier this month in the House. The amended budget covers the fiscal year that ends June 30.
-The Senate voted 32-16 to create a 16-member panel to weigh issues related to state health insurance benefits. The Special Advisory Commission on Mandated Health Insurance Benefits would take effect on Feb. 1, 2012. Most members would be appointed by the governor and would include doctors and health care professionals and representatives from the small business and medical ethics industries. The House and Senate would each appoint two members from committees.
-The Georgia House has moved to shorten the early voting period to three weeks and has added a Saturday for casting ballots. Approved 148-20, the bill sets a statewide start date for in-person, no-excuse early voting. Under the bill, advance voting would begin the fourth Monday preceding a primary and general election and as soon as possible before a runoff. Early voting would end the Friday immediately prior to each election.
-The Senate has again signaled its support for a constitutional amendment that would fix state spending and use any surplus to pay down debt or go toward a rainy day fund. The Senate approved the proposal 42-7. Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers says the resolution would restrict the state from spending money in excess of the previous year's budget adjusted for inflation and population. If approved by the Legislature, the amendment would be on the 2012 general election ballot.
-Nathan Deal has signed his first piece of legislation as governor. The legislation allows renewal of a voter-approved tax for Carroll County. Without action by March 15, it would have expired this year. State Rep. Tim Bearden, a Villa Rica Republican, requested the expedited review by the governor. Early voting on the tax has already begun in Carroll County.
-A Georgia lawmaker is proposing that the state track and report students and medical patients who are illegal immigrants or unable to prove their citizenship. The bill would require the Board of Education and Department of Community Health to publish their findings on their websites by Jan. 1 of each year.
-A key Republican senator wants public utilities and their employees to be able to contribute to political campaigns. State Sen. Don Balfour introduced legislation that would permit the donations to political action committees. Utilities and their employees would still be barred from contributing to members of the state Public Service Commission. Balfour said the current law is "blatantly unconstitutional" because it prevents some 41,000 utility employees in Georgia from making political contributions.
-Supporters of legislation that would let local communities vote on whether to have Sunday alcohol sales say the issue is still alive and that lawmakers should let voters weigh in on the issue. About 75 people gathered at the Georgia Capitol for a rally prompted by a Facebook group called Georgians for Sunday Alcohol Sales. Several legislators joined the rally, including Sen. John Bulloch and Rep. Roger Williams, the bill's sponsors.
- Deal says he is committed to helping disabled Georgians who want to remain independent in their communities and improve their quality of life. Deal spoke to hundreds gathered at the Capitol for Disability Day and was praised as a champion for disabled rights during his four decades as a public servant. He told the crowd he plans to create at least 1,000 waivers during his time in office to help people transitioning out of hospitals and nursing homes.
-Georgia lawmakers moved one step closer toward banning a new brand of synthetic drug that is marketed as bath salts and sold legally under brand names like "Ivory Wave" and "Cloud Nine." The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee voted to outlaw the five main chemicals used to create "bath salts," which are drugs usually snorted like cocaine but also can be smoked and injected. It was adopted by a 7-1 vote.
-Georgia may be making budget cuts, but a bipartisan group of House legislators wants to extend a tax break on jet fuel that saves Delta Air Lines and other carriers about $25 million a year in state taxes. The tax break is set to expire on July 1. The bill would extend it until 2013.
-Deal says he's not interested in a war of words with neighboring South Carolina but he recognizes the tremendous competition among ports along the East Coast. Deal says the two states should work together for the good of both economies. The expansion of the Panama Canal is pitting seaports up and down the Atlantic coast in a race to dig deeper harbors.
-Civil and human rights activists are opposing bills that they say are anti-immigrant and encourage racial profiling. Two of the bills would require law officers, when enforcing other laws, to try to determine an individual's immigration status if an officer "develops reasonable suspicion" that the person is an illegal immigrant.
"I'm really disappointed in all of you," - Rose Dasher, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Georgia, speaking to lawmakers about cuts to the HOPE scholarship.
DAYS IN SESSION
21 days remain in the 40-day legislative session.
The House is expected to vote on legislation making cuts to the HOPE scholarship program. A House committee is expected to vote on a sweeping immigration bill.