Democrats representing Cobb in the Georgia Legislature plan to tackle some unfinished business from last year’s session when the state’s lawmakers convene on Monday.
For instance, state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, wants to expand Georgia’s HOPE Grant to cover more of the costs of technical college, an issue she has been working on for the last few years.
Meanwhile, state Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, wants to bring back a bill regarding college savings plans that failed to get out of the House last year and state Sen. Michael Rhett, D-Marietta, plans to continue his work to improve health care in Georgia.
Evans said Georgia’s HOPE Grant covers a percentage of tuition for technical college students based on the health of Georgia’s lottery funds, a percentage that typically hovers around 85 percent. As a result, there is a gap between what the grant pays and the tuition costs to students.
That gap can be as small as $300 dollars, Evans said, “which may not sound like a lot, but if you don’t have it, it might as well be $1 million. And the students in technical college tend to be more price sensitive.”
So, Evans plans to file a bill that allows the grant to cover full tuition for students that maintain a 2.0 grade point average. The most up-to-date cost of her proposed expansion of the grant program is $13.7 million, Evans said.
“It’s a big number for anybody, but relatively speaking in the grand scheme of things, the lottery put $1 billion into the education fund last year. So $13.7 (million) is not really that much when you think about the path to the middle class, the ability to help close the skills gap,” Evans said.
Closing the funding gap for technical college students will allow more of them to stay in school, Rhett said.
“There is a direct correlation between how much tuition is covered for technical (college) students and attendance,” Rhett said.
The cost to expand the grant would come solely from lottery money, Evans said, which is currently healthy. The state is required to hold 50 percent of the prior year’s payouts from the lottery fund in reserve, which is about $400 million.
“That’s sitting safe, covered up, can’t get to it. On top of that is another $480 million that we’re not required to hold that we are holding and we’re not spending. It’s money that people have paid to play the lottery thinking that they were supporting education and it’s just sitting there,” Evans said, adding, “I just use that as an example to say how healthy the lottery is, that we don’t need to worry about adding another $13 million on to what we’re spending because we have money. And I’m not saying we should just spend money because we have it, but this is a good investment that’s been proven to actually get people working, move people into the middle class, get them paying taxes. It’s a huge return on investment, and we don’t have to invest tax dollars up front. We just invest lottery dollars.”
Evans said expanding the HOPE Grant can also incentivize students on the fence on whether to attend a technical college or a four-year school to get a technical degree. About two-thirds of higher-ed students attend a four-year college and one-third attend technical colleges, Evans said.
“We actually need that to be flipped for the jobs that we know are coming in the next 10, 20 years,” she said.
COLLEGE SAVINGS PLANS
Last year, Wilkerson filed a bill that would have seen the state match contributions to college savings accounts, called 529 accounts, for lower income families. The bill made it out of committee, but not out of the House of Representatives.
Wilkerson’s bill had the state contributing two dollars for every dollar saved by families making up to $30,000 a year and a one-to-one match for families making up to $60,000 a year.
“It incentivizes people to start investing in their own education, and the state is a partner with you,” he said.
A challenge with college savings plans today is that contributions can be deducted from income taxes, but this tax credit primarily helps high-income families.
“So the majority of people that are investing in 529 plans are those that are making over $100,000, $150,000 a year,” Wilkerson said.
To try to get it passed, Wilkerson said he hopes to get Republicans on board to make his proposal a bipartisan notion.
Rhett said his goals regarding health care in Georgia may have to be on hold due to the election of Donald Trump as president. Last year, Rhett said he sponsored a bill that took federal funds and purchased insurance for low-income Georgians and charged them a sliding premium of no more than 5 percent of their income.
Then, Trump was elected on a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, leaving state lawmakers unsure how to proceed on the issue.
“So right now, we’ve kind of got that on hold because we don’t know specifically what the new plan is going to be until they formulate that,” Rhett said.
Because Rhett’s plan relied on federal assistance and it’s unclear how much federal money for health care will be coming south until Congress and Trump make their changes to federal law, he’s flying blind in a sense.
Evans added that while health care is tricky because what the federal government makes a significant impact on what Georgia can do on the issue, something will likely have to be done.
“We are probably going to have to put off a solution (even though) we have a huge problem in Georgia,” Evans said. “We have a crisis in our hospitals, particularly in the rural areas, so regardless of what’s going on on the federal side and regardless of what’s going on with the Affordable Care Act, we have a problem in Georgia that we have to solve … We can’t really afford to wait too long because we’ve been building up a crisis for several years, partly because we didn’t expand Medicaid when we had the opportunity to.”