SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois Senate agreed Thursday to stop letting lawmakers hand out free college education to certain constituents, removing the final roadblock to ending a century-old practice plagued by allegations of corruption and political favoritism.
Legislators and government watchdogs said the program might have survived if lawmakers hadn't abused the perk by awarding tuition waivers to the children of political allies and campaign donors. Critics said the decision to scrap the program was a reminder that corruption hurts all residents – including students who are just seeking help to pay for their higher education.
"It's important to come to an end, but it's hard to call anything a victory that ends up taking anything away from students, most of whom deserve to attend college," said Emily Miller, policy and government affairs coordinator for the Better Government Association. "It did become a symbol of corruption, and that's a defeat for the students who should have benefited."
After years of blocking legislation, the Senate voted 43-5, with five "present" votes, to end the waiver program. The Illinois House has voted repeatedly to halt the tuition waivers, and Gov. Pat Quinn opposes them, too, so the Senate's action was the final hurdle.
In the last year alone, six lawmakers have been linked to improper or questionable scholarship awards. They gave them to relatives of lobbyists, politicians and friends, or to people who appear to live outside their district. In some cases, multiple recipients of the waivers mysteriously listed addresses linked to the legislators handing out the waivers, even though other records suggested they lived elsewhere.
Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed documents on one former legislator's scholarship decisions, and the State Board of Education notified federal authorities about possible violations by another lawmaker.
"You wouldn't think that we would take relish in eliminating over 1,400 opportunities for kids to have scholarships to go to college," said Senate President John Cullerton, who sponsored the measure. "But there were abuses."
Each of the state's 177 lawmakers is allowed to award two four-year waivers to public universities annually, with the schools absorbing the cost of educating the lucky students. Lawmakers generally break them up and award eight one-year waivers annually. In 2011, lawmakers doled out $13.5 million in tuition waivers.
Maryland is the only other state with a comparable program.
Supporters of the waiver say it lets legislators help promising students who otherwise wouldn't be able to go to college. They note Illinois is cutting financial aid at the same time tuition rates are climbing.
"I think this is a travesty for the governor to take scholarships away from people who really, truly need them," said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood.
Four years ago, Lightford awarded a waiver to the wife of a lobbyist, outraging critics.
Recipients' names were kept secret for years, but that changed after journalists uncovered some of the winners had political connections.
Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said he voted to kill the program, but called it a "hollow victory."
"I voted for the measure because I think it was a distraction, but I wasn't pleased with my vote," Jacobs said. "I'm not happy with it. All I saw today is that eight kids in my district were going to lose scholarships."
David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said not every legislator has treated it as a true scholarship, but he's sorry to see students lose out. ICPR does not have an official position on the legislative waivers.
The measure to end the waivers also created a task force to examine other tuition waivers to state schools. Morrison said he hope the task force will establish clear criteria for other public university waivers. The legislators' awards are just one category in the $415 million tuition waivers that Illinois universities absorb.
Sen. Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign, had sponsored measures to end the program the last three years. He said the waivers actually hurt other students, who pay higher tuition to make for those getting the free ride, and that without the waivers, there is less pressure to increase tuition.
"It's a program that has been abused. Itt's a program that is not funded. It put great costs on our universities in the state of Illinois," Frerichs said. "It's a good day that we've finally done away with it."
The bill is HB3810.
Shannon McFarland can be reached at https://twitter.com/shanmcf