Plan to end legislative scholarships makes headway

By Ryan Voyles
Posted5/2/2012 6:15 PM
  • A plan to abolish the controversial General Assembly Scholarship program might have leapt over one of its biggest hurdles on its way to the governor's desk.

    A plan to abolish the controversial General Assembly Scholarship program might have leapt over one of its biggest hurdles on its way to the governor's desk.

SPRINGFIELD -- The end could be growing near for the controversial General Assembly Scholarship program.

A proposal to end the scholarships, which require schools to waive tuition costs for scholarship recipients chosen by lawmakers, was approved by a state Senate committee by a 12-1 vote Wednesday, setting up a possible vote by the full Senate.

Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said the scholarship controversy shows what can happen when lawmakers abuse their power and "taint" a well-intentioned program. Scandals over lawmakers' decisions to give scholarships to politically connected students have spurred the push to abolish them.

"(Ending the program) is an absolutely necessary step to take to rebuild the relationship between those elected to govern this state and those that we report to -- the voters," Murphy said.

The plan survived a potential hurdle early Wednesday as it sat in a Senate subcommittee -- where legislation is sometimes sent to die and where previous proposals to end the scholarship program have been sent. But it passed the committee after an amendment was added by Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, which would create a task force to evaluate the costs tuition and fee waivers offered by state universities have on the state.

"We have some $356,000 of tuition fee waivers and we've had questions of how many of them are necessary seeing as they cost the state money," he said.

Cullerton, a longtime advocate for the program, said he was disappointed the scholarships would end, but understood past abuses and growing unpopularity among legislators meant it was time for the program to go.

Rep. Fred Crespo, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates and House sponsor of the legislation, said he does not believe the amendment should hurt the bill's chances. He said there has been enough outcry from the public, legislators and the governor to push for the program's elimination.

Supporters of the program said the amount of people it has helped far outweigh any negatives.

"It's a travesty for education in the state of Illinois," said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood, about ending the program.

If signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, an advocate of ending the program, lawmakers would have to stop giving the scholarships by Sept. 1. Students who receive the scholarships before that date would still be allowed to use them.

"The time is right to end this," Crespo said.

It's unclear if Cullerton's changes would hurt the proposal's 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.

The costs 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 in the past two years, who prefers an outright elimination of it.

The proposal is likely to pass the Senate if called for a vote, as 38 senators are co-sponsors of the legislation. The House would need to approve the amended plan before it can be sent to the governor.

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