Bring back legislative scholarships? Proposal faces serious questions from both sides

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

Illinois_News_Network_logoSPRINGFIELD — Some Chicago-area legislators want to revive a program that let state lawmakers send folks to college tuition-free.

Given abuses of a previous program and the state’s sorry fiscal condition, the measure faces an uphill battle.

State Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City, sponsors the proposal, House Bill 1397. It would allow each state senator and representative to annually award four one-year scholarships and two four-year scholarships.

Illinois previous incarnation of legislator-awarded scholarships died in an inglorious death. While many, perhaps most, legislators handled tuition waivers carefully others did not.

That old program had one requirement: recipients had to live in the legislator’s district, but even that sometimes was ignored.

Dozens of scholarships went to students outside awarding legislators’ districts or to the children of relatives, political friends, campaign donors and lobbyists — often without apparent regard for financial need or academic achievement.

When then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill in June 2012 ending the program, his office estimated the program was costing state universities about $13.5 million a year.

State Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, a cosponsor of the new bill, says the intent of the original program was noble, and for “those of us who did use it correctly, it worked very well.”

Mayfield said the new program is also intended to help students who otherwise would not be able to afford college, but it has safeguards built in.

For instance, it includes a bi-partisan nominating committee and a provision that would require legislators who knowingly break the rules to personally reimburse the state for the full cost of the waiver.

Several legislators the Illinois News Network spoke to said that while the sponsors intents might be admirable, it’s just not the right time.

“I think this would be terribly unwise,” said state Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon.

McCarter said he chose not to participate in the earlier program even before it was killed because it raised the specter of conflict of interest.

Even with additional safeguards in place, McCarter asked how could a legislator now vote to fund such a program now rather than direct available money to those citizens most in need of help.

State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, agreed. Given the past events, “it’s probably something better off left dead,” he said. And because universities were not reimbursed by the state for educating the tuition-free students, the program amounted to an unfunded mandate, he added.

“The budget is bad, and we just can’t afford to start new programs,” said state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton.

And, she said, “We need to keep our scholarship programs completely separate from any political dealings.”

Said state Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, “With the way the budget is going right now and the loss of a lot revenue … I don’t believe this would be the best time to reinstate those scholarships.”

Smiddy said he admired the sponsors’ intent, but Illinois needs to get on sound fiscal ground before it can consider the idea.

Elected officials directly granting scholarships will always raise questions, said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“The idea has not gotten any better since we abolished it, and certainly the budget situation makes it less attractive,” Redfield said.

Mayfield acknowledged the bill had little chance of passing this session but said legislators still need to talk about it.

“I don’t think we should penalize those students who did everything they were supposed to do, who did everything correctly and just really wanted an opportunity to go to school,” she said.

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