Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) plans to reform or possibly abolish the General Assembly scholarship program when the legislature returns to Springfield in January.
“We don’t know what those reforms could be. It could be anything from streamlining the process, creating a uniform process, or it could be complete abolishment. But we’re not going to make that judgment prior to the hearing,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said.
The new Senate president, who’s taking his first public stand on the controversial scholarship program, is reviewing it now because other Senate Democrats want to make changes, Phelon said.
As one of the biggest opponents of the program, the Danville Republican plans to attempt once more to kill it when the legislature convenes in early 2010. This is the fourth time Black has tried to pass legislation to abolish the scholarships, a battle that dates back to 1995.
Getting rid of the century-old program won’t be easy, though critics of the program say the conviction of a former governor, Republican George Ryan, and the indictment of another, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, could give Black’s bill a boost.
“This might have been a perk of office that for the most part could be quietly doled out but is now increasingly under a spotlight, and so I think whether it’s Black’s bill or another bill, I think probably the odds of doing away with this practice are better now than they ever have been,” said Cindi Canary, executive director of the watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said lawmakers may decide the program isn’t worth the trouble.
“There is enough bad practice going on that it hurts the reputation of the members, lessens the legitimacy of the legislature in terms of things that they do, so members are advocating it saying that it’s just not worth it,” said Redfield.
Legislators have acknowledged misuse of the scholarships since the early 1970’s, according to transcripts of floor debate in 1995 of House Bill 1498, which would have eliminated the scholarships.
Rep. Dave Winters (R-Rockford) supported the bill, saying on the House floor when the legislation was debated that the scholarships do more harm than good to the General Assembly’s reputation.
“We simply have to maintain and enhance the reputation of the General Assembly by ridding us of the potential of fraud that we have with these particular perks,” said Winters, who participates in the program.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park), another opponent, doesn’t believe it should be his job to award scholarships, so he never has.
“I have voted six times, much to my colleagues’ disappointment, to abolish it. I wasn’t voted to be Santa Claus. I was voted to be a legislator,” said McCarthy, who was first elected in 1997.
Even with House Speaker Michael Madigan’s (D-Chicago) backing, a 1999 bill to end the program failed. Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said individual lawmakers have different perspectives on the issue and there just weren’t enough votes at the time to do away with the scholarships.
“There are people who believe as a legislator they have as much good judgment about scholarships as some bureaucrat at a university or bureaucrat at the student assistance commission, so there’s a diverse point of view,” Brown said.
Besides Black’s latest bill, Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock) is pushing a similar piece of legislation to abolish the program. Franks said he hopes the two bills will put more pressure on fellow lawmakers to move on the issue and get something passed.
And in the Senate, Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) and Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) have each introduced legislation of their own to abolish the program, Senate Bill 2175 and Senate Bill 2472.
Radogno spokeswoman Patty Schuh said lawmakers are bound by very few criteria when deciding how to dole out the scholarships, and recent attention to the program may be worrying students who don’t want their names associated with controversy.
“A number of legislators will start to see that the perceived abuse is out there, that it makes the scholarships less attractive to students,” Schuh said.
Although Radogno, Brady and Franks want to stop the scholarships, they still give them out to constituents in their three districts, as do 160 other lawmakers, a team of Columbia College Chicago journalists discovered in a three-month investigation done in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News.
The scholarships add up. In 2007-2008, the most recent data available, legislators awarded 1,509 scholarships worth $12.5 million. That’s money that could be far better spent, said Black.
He used to hand out thousands of dollars in free tuition to students in his downstate district until he realized in the mid-1990s that other students at the state’s public universities were paying for the scholarships.
“It finally dawned on me one day in going to meetings and going to seminars and being one who was concerned about tuition increases, it dawned on me that I was part of the problem,” Black said.
He decided to stop awarding scholarships in his district after the 1995 floor debate. There was also the uncomfortable moment when a constituent offered to donate money to his re-election campaign if his child received one of Black’s scholarships.
Black, McCarthy and other opponents say they’ve come to the conclusion that the legislative scholarships benefit very few students at the cost of many.
“You’re sending people off for a free – whatever that means – ride and others have to make up the difference. It’s really a classic cost-shift,” Black said.
If his bill dies in the House as it has in previous years, Black won’t have another chance since he’s planning to retire at the end of 2010. But he reassures himself that future members of the General Assembly, if not the current group, will realize they can’t keep asking universities to come up with the money for these scholarships and put an end to them.
“I’ll let somebody else pick up that torch.”
Laura Lane and Nicole Leonhardt contributed to this story.
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