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Class Act: Ending Illinois Legislative Scholarships

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It's one of the great perks of membership in the Illinois General Assembly: Doling out annual legislative scholarships that provide students in their districts a free education at a state-sponsored university.

In theory, scholarships are for deserving young people who have the brains but not the bucks to pay for tuition at the University of Illinois or any of the 10 state-backed institutions of higher learning. In reality, hundreds of thousands of dollars are ladled out every year, with little or no oversight, to children of lawmakers' buddies, political allies, campaign workers or contributors.

Recent investigations by the Better Government Association and media outlets have disclosed that state legislators routinely abuse this award program by using it as a type of currency to pay back supporters or cronies. It's such an embarrassing mess that a third of the General Assembly now refuses to participate in the program, according to a recent newspaper report.

It's time to face the facts: The legislative award program, which allows every lawmaker to grant two scholarships a year, is beyond reform and should be eliminated.

The General Assembly can fix the problem this year by passing a bill that would eliminate the legislative scholarship program. There is already a proposal, filed last December in the House of Representatives, that's attracting bipartisan support and has 37 co-sponsors.

That bill would end the legislative scholarship program completely, preventing any new scholarships from being awarded.

Some of the state's heavy hitters say they want legislative scholarships to go away.

Governor Pat Quinn and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) made eliminating legislative scholarships a top priority during the most recent veto session.

Unfortunately, the General Assembly as a whole has been more talk than action when it comes to getting rid of this legislative largesse, which now costs taxpayers about $15 million per year.

Over the years, bills designed to eliminate the program have failed, usually because of political maneuvering by the Senate. In 2010 a bill passed in the House only to die in the Senate.

In 1999, when the House passed a bill that would have prevented its members from awarding scholarships, the Senate added and passed an amendment exempting itself from the prohibition, a move that quickly killed the bill's chances to move to the Governor's desk for approval.

And the Senate's Democratic leadership still isn't on board with elimination of the program, preventing a Republican-supported measure to end the program from coming up for a vote in 2011.

On the other side of the aisle House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago) has voted to get rid of legislative scholarships, but he hasn't publicly gone to bat for the issue or made it a priority.

It will come as cold comfort to know that Illinois is not alone -- legislative scholarships programs around the country, including Louisiana and Maryland, present similar ethical issues stemming from a lack of oversight and loose rules dictating who can receive an award.

We acknowledge that some awards here in Illinois do go to deserving students, and some lawmakers handle the scholarship program ethically by awarding grants strictly on merit or letting an outside panel vet the candidates for academic and financial worthiness. But that's hard to legislate, so let's put scholarship decisions where they belong -- in the hands of the educators at the universities themselves, insulated from the whims of the politicians.

The BGA recommends lawmakers in both chambers, and on both sides of the political aisle, dump the legislative scholarship program because it's rotting from within, lacks accountability and is not based on merit but clout.

Cullerton and Madigan, the co-czars of the General Assembly, should work with the Republicans to quickly pass a bill ending the program as soon as the new legislative session gets underway at the end of the month. And Gov. Quinn should sign the measure into law.

When lawmakers award taxpayer-funded scholarships to the children of friends, political allies, campaign contributors or lobbyists they're using public money to curry private favor.

In the BGA's view, that's the essence of political corruption and it has to stop.

To view and sign our petition click here.

This post was originally published in the "Chicago Sun-Times."

Emily Miller is the BGA's policy and government affairs coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org.