Illinois Democrats in control of a legislative subcommittee appear to be stalling on bills that would end the controversial practice of allowing state legislators to award in-state public university scholarships to anyone they choose.
“Since 2010, there have been at least seven reports of legislative scholarship abuse,” explained Emily Miller, Better Government Association policy and government relations coordinator, “and not a single investigation with a suggested remedial action has come out of the legislative inspector general’s office.”
The century-old Illinois General Assembly Legislative Scholarship has been “beset for decades by cronyism, insider dealings, and sleight of hand,” according to a 2011 BGA and Chicago Sun-Times investigation. It revealed lawmakers were awarding scholarships to children of friends and employees using false addresses to meet residency requirements. The legislative scholarship costs taxpayers $13.5 million annually.
More than 90 state legislators have pledged to opt-out of the program. The Illinois State Board of Education has recommended eliminating it.
In March, the House passed a bill authored by Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates) that would end the program. The House approved a similar measure in 2010, but the Senate defeated it.
What’s the Hold-Up
Of Illinois’ 59 senators, 38 co-sponsored Crespo’s bill. It joins two others in the Senate that would also eliminate the scholarship. All three plans are stuck in a subcommittee controlled by Senate Democrats. A Senate Democrats spokesman said it is unclear when—or if—the subcommittee will vote on any of them.
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said he prefers the scholarship program be reformed, not abolished.
“I’m completely cynical about whether or not they are going to try and pass this,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont). “It’s crystal clear that there is widespread support for this bill, and these are parliamentary maneuvers to keep it from coming up for a vote.”
The GALS allows each General Assembly member to give students living in their districts college scholarships to attend in-state public universities. Each lawmaker may award up to eight one-year scholarships or two four-year scholarships per year. They cover the complete cost of attendance, between $60,000 to $80,000 each.
Lawmakers’ family members are ineligible, but some have given scholarships to students living outside their districts and children of campaign donors.
For example, State Rep. Daniel Burke (D-Chicago) set aside four years of college tuition worth $70,000 for his former secretary’s daughter, whose scholarship paperwork listed a home belonging to the parents of his subsequent secretary as her permanent residence, according to the BGA-Sun Times investigation. Over that same period, however, the daughter’s driver’s license listed a residence more than 200 miles away—the same address she used for her college admissions application.
The BGA also discovered that, since 1999, Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) had awarded scholarships to 10 students living outside of her district, relatives of campaign donors, and relatives of her employees.
“It sounds pretty difficult to believe,” Radogno said. “It just reinforces that we need to get rid of the program.”
Gov. Pat Quinn concurred, insisting, “Don’t mend it. End it.”
Deserving Students Pay
The program doesn’t just spend taxpayer money on perks for lawmakers’ friends and donors, it makes regular students pay more for tuition and may cut them out of merit-cased scholarships, said Collin Hitt, the Illinois Policy Institute’s senior director of government affairs.
“Illinois colleges already offer scholarships based on merit and financial need,” Hitt said. “When politicians hand out tuition waivers, universities have to cover those costs in part by cutting their own scholarship awards.”
Radogno insisted that compromises or attempts to reform the program would only allow further and more hidden abuse of taxpayer dollars.
“There is no way to reform this program, and there shouldn’t be any more attempts to try and do that,” she said. “It’s just been constantly rife with abuse and misuse.”
Image by Miran Rijavec.