- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Since launching his campaign for governor, Democrat Jason Carter has charged that Gov. Nathan Deal ignored the middle class for four years, leading to lower income and high unemployment in Georgia.

But the Deal campaign fired back this week on another topic dear to middle class Georgia voters - the merit-based HOPE scholarship, sometimes called the third rail of Georgia politics. Deal’s campaign hopes that harping on HOPE will make inroads with a group that Carter has targeted from the start in his attempt to defeat a Republican incumbent.

The program was first envisioned as a lottery-funded all-expenses-paid college education, initially available to families earning less than $66,000 a year - but the restriction was later removed. By 2010, a record 256,380 students were using the awards and costing the state more than $740 million. Lottery revenue couldn’t keep up, and lawmakers clashed over an expected $300 million shortfall.

Carter, a state senator from Atlanta, faults Deal for changing the program in 2011, reducing the number of recipients. He accuses the governor of ruining the program rather than saving it. Deal and his supporters focus on Carter’s proposal at that time to cap family income as a fix to HOPE’s financial problems.

Deal’s campaign spokesman Brian Robinson said that would have hit middle class Georgians hardest. In a television ad released Thursday, former Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat who created the HOPE program, credited Deal with “rising to the challenge” when HOPE was in danger. Another Deal ad followed Friday, showing a young boy using a ladder to play basketball as a narrator says Carter would “restrict middle class access” to HOPE.

The state Republican party used an even sharper attack in a robo-call, accusing Carter of wanting to eliminate HOPE “for thousands of middle class families.” Carter’s campaign called that a “shameful lie” and demanded an end to the ads, while the candidate said it demonstrates Deal fears he’s losing.

Carter and some other Democrats unsuccessfully pushed in 2011 to keep full scholarships, paid for by cutting retailers’ fees for winning tickets. Carter also introduced a bill capping family income to receive the scholarship, with award amounts changing annually based on HOPE funding.

Deal’s proposal eventually passed, cutting most scholarships to 90 percent of expenses except for students with a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 on the SAT who would receive full tuition. It also increased the GPA that recipients had to maintain while in college by a full point and untied the scholarship amount from tuition rates.

This week, Carter called an income cap “too blunt an instrument,” but said students’ financial situation should be considered. The state can create a model to consider need, including how many children in a family attend college, Carter said.

“This used to be a program about access for hard working, high achieving kids,” Carter said. “And now it’s not about access anymore.”

In 2013, the state reported spending $532.9 million for 198,299 HOPE recipients, including high achieving students with full tuition paid.

Carter’s campaign continues to target middle-class voters, releasing its harshest attack yet against Deal on Friday. The ad focuses on the turnaround in the governor’s personal finances during the last four years. Deal reported a $2.3 million bank loan during his 2010 run for governor, but by 2014 reported a net worth of $3.9 million.

Carter’s ad focuses on the $2 million sale of a salvage yard Deal owned to a firm called Copart, which separately owes the state about $74 million in sales taxes. The ad says Deal got rich while the middle class in Georgia “has fallen further behind.”

Deal’s campaign said he put his assets in a blind trust managed by a trustee after being elected, then repeated Deal’s call for a court to settle Copart’s tax issue with the state and for the company to pay what it owes.

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