Local lawmakers propose end to legislative scholarships

The days of state lawmakers providing free tuition for selected college students soon may be over.

Some DuPage County legislators are sponsoring a bill to eliminate General Assembly scholarships as a form of financial assistance for college students. They say the scholarships create unfunded tuition waivers that ultimately cost the state's public universities money.

“We're hearing from our institutions of higher learning that their financial condition isn't good, so I think we're helping them out,” said State Rep. Sandra Pihos, a Glen Ellyn Republican and co-sponsor of the bill.

Other lawmakers, meanwhile, already are announcing personal decisions to discontinue the scholarships.

Last year, 40 of the state's 177 legislators, including State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, did not award any scholarships.

“My rationale was with the state's fiscal crisis that we not add unfunded mandates to our state universities, and that's what (General Assembly scholarships) are because we don't reimburse the university for the tuition waiver,” Reboletti said.

State Reps. Michael Connelly, a Lisle Republican, and Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, recently announced they will not give scholarships this year. And Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican, said she is leaning toward discontinuing her tuition waivers, but is seeking input from parent organizations and school boards before deciding.

Pihos and Elmhurst Republican Chris Nybo, a co-sponsor of the bill, say such steps by other lawmakers make them hopeful the new legislation has a chance to pass.

News organizations have disclosed ethical issues with General Assembly scholarships in the past and similar bills have proposed ending them. Gov. Pat Quinn supported eliminating the scholarships last spring when he vetoed a bill to reform them.

“It's just not a fair way to support education in this state,” Nybo said. “The schools take the hit on this.”

Each state senator and representative can award the equivalent of two, 4-year tuition waivers to students at any of the state's 12 public universities each year in office.

Many choose to split the awards, granting eight 1-year tuition waivers each year. The state does not refund universities for the scholarships.

At the University of Illinois' campuses in Champaign-Urbana, Chicago and Springfield, 636 students received General Assembly scholarships in 2010, according to Illinois State Board of Education records. Those awards cost the three campuses a total of almost $9.5 million, according to University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy.

“There's no question there is a cost to the university for all (tuition) waivers,” Hardy said.

The bill that created the ability to award General Assembly scholarships only requires recipients be chosen by “competitive examination.”

“It's a program for which legislators are not held accountable,” Nybo said. “A legislator is able to give these out in whatever manner they want ... and that's where the abuses come in.”

In previous debates about the scholarships, State Rep. Rosemary Mulligan, a Des Plaines Republican, said most legislators do not abuse the program. She said she has spoken — and voted — in favor of continuing them. But now she appears ready to change her mind.

“I always thought it was a good way to spread out scholarship money across the state, pretty much equally,” Mulligan said.

Anjali Gera, a second-year medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, received a General Assembly scholarship from Mulligan in 2010. Gera said she has never spoken with Mulligan, corresponding instead with members of a committee that chose scholarship recipients.

“My mother is disabled and she can't work ... My dad works really hard to pay my loans,” said Gera, whose parents live in Mount Prospect. “Having the General Assembly scholarship really helps them relax a little more.”

Mulligan said she is tired of fighting allegations that all who award the scholarships are corrupt and she plans to change her vote to support eliminating them.

But State Rep. Monique D. Davis, a Chicago Democrat, said she will continue to oppose the scholarship elimination bill.

“Some people have this mistaken idea that if anybody gives the average Illinoisan anything, we have to get that back,” Davis said. “I would terribly object to anyone coming in and wanting to take (the scholarships) away.”

If the scholarships are discontinued, Davis said it's students — often children of hardworking, middle-class citizens — who will take the biggest hit.

“We encourage students to apply for these scholarships if their plan is to attend a public university in Illinois,” Sandy Schuller, director of guidance at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, said in an e-mail. “Any loss of scholarship opportunities to students is sad.”

Pihos said she hopes the realization that the state's backlog of bills is hurting universities will create enough lawmaker support to end the scholarships this time around.

“I think it should be given a fair hearing,” she said. “As people are working on the financial crisis, I think this should be one aspect people consider.”