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updated: 5/3/2012 3:55 PM

General Assembly scholarship elimination passes Senate

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By Ryan Voyles
rvoyles@dailyherald.com

SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois lawmakers are a step away from sending a plan to kill the controversial General Assembly scholarship program to Gov. Pat Quinn.

The Senate voted 43-5 Thursday to end the program. The scholarships require schools to waive tuition costs for recipients chosen by lawmakers.

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State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, was once a supporter of the scholarships, but he said abuses and the costs to universities have turned him against the program.

"It is time to end and kill this dinosaur program," Dillard said.

The plan also would create a task force to evaluate the costs of tuition and fee waivers offered by state universities.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat and longtime advocate of the program, said the idea of taking away scholarships is never easy, but abuses and negative publicity can take lawmakers' attention away from the bigger issues.

"We have major issues to talk about (this spring), and this program has become a distraction," Cullerton said.

It's unclear if the creation of a task force, an amendment to the proposal, would hurt its support in the House. Though the House has already approved a similar version, they'd have to vote for the legislation again to send it to Quinn.

If signed by the governor, a proponent of ending the program, the proposal would prevent lawmakers from giving the scholarships after Sept. 1. Students who receive the scholarships before that date would still be allowed to use them.

"Abolishing a political scholarship program is the right thing for deserving students who need financial assistance to attend college," Quinn said in a statement. "Illinois deserves to have a strong scholarship program that helps needy students go to college."

Scandals over lawmakers' decisions to give scholarships to politically connected students have spurred the push to abolish them.

The cost to universities has also drawn criticism. According to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the scholarship program cost state universities $13.9 million in the 2009-2010 school year.

About 40 percent of the state's 177 lawmakers no longer give scholarships. Plans to reform the program have been vetoed by Quinn, who prefers an outright elimination.

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