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Illinois Senate Approves Changes to Legislative Scholarship Program

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Senate unanimously approved legislation Wednesday that would make some changes to the legislature’s controversial scholarship program but keep it intact. The program has been under fire in recent months after stories by ChicagoTalks, The Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press.

Senate Bill 365 – sponsored by Senate President John J. Cullerton (D-Chicago) – would prevent lawmakers from giving legislative scholarships to constituents whose families have donated to their political campaigns in the last five years. Recipients and their families are also prohibited from making contributions to the lawmaker for five years after receiving the award.

In addition, the legislation would require that a scholarship be terminated if the student moves out of the lawmaker’s district; current law already requires that scholarship recipients reside in the legislator’s district.

The bill also would allow lawmakers to forfeit their right to dole out the annual scholarships – something 14 legislators already do on their own.

Current law allows each legislator every year to award up to 16 one-semester or eight two-semester awards at any of the state’s four-year public universities. One hundred and sixty-three of the 177 state legislators participated in the program as of fall 2009, when ChicagoTalks contacted every member of the Illinois General Assembly to learn how they pick scholarship winners.

Last year, nearly1,600 scholarships were awarded at a total cost of $13.5 million to the universities, according to a recently released report. The ChicagoTalks investigation found repeated instances of scholarships being awarded to campaign donors, politically connected families and, in at least one instance, a lawmaker’s relative. The journalists also identified five legislators who require scholarship applicants to register to vote, a practice one constitutional lawyer called illegal.

Before Wednesday’s vote, Cullerton called his proposal to tweak the century-old program  “good reform.” The Senate leader said he would consider creating a task force to study all the tuition waivers the state awards annually to veterans, relatives of university employees, student-athletes and others.

But some lawmakers said the bill didn’t go nearly far enough; they argued the scholarship program should be abolished.

“It’s time to do away with these things, it’s past time,” Sen. John O. Jones (R-Mount Vernon) said earlier Wednesday when a Senate committee discussed the measure. Later on the Senate floor, he added, “These things are out of hand and are costing our constituents a ton of money.”

Sen. Michael W. Frerichs (D-Champaign) pushed his own bill to get rid of the legislative scholarships earlier Wednesday before the same committee that considered Cullerton’s legislation, but he didn’t get enough votes to move the measure to the full Senate. Frerichs represents the University of Illinois’s flagship campus, which has to cover the costs of hundreds of the annual legislative scholarships.

Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) said the proposal was better than nothing but only nibbles on the edges of what needs to be done to restore the public’s confidence in the General Assembly.

“Some of the changes being proposed are decent changes, but they’re wholly inadequate,” said Radogno, who has proposed legislation to do away with the program. Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) has introduced similar legislation.

Given what dire financial shape the state is in – there’s an estimated $13 billion deficit in Illinois’ budget – this is the time to demonstrate fiscal responsibility, Radogno said.

“While I will support these minor changes, which I think are basically PR and won’t accomplish much, we need to talk about eliminating the program.”

But other lawmakers defended the program, saying it has helped students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend college.

Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) pointed to one woman sitting in the Senate chambers whom  he met for the first time Wednesday. The woman, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has benefited from the legislative waiver program and is an example of why the program shouldn’t be eliminated, Raoul said.

Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford (D-Westchester) agreed, noting that scholarship winners still have to come up with room and board. “So what we’re doing is helping them get there. We’re giving them an opportunity to get an education higher than high school.”

And Lightford noted that those lawmakers who object to legislative scholarships can simply choose not to participate.

To read ChicagoTalks’ investigation, click here.

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