Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Senate approves GA scholarship reforms

By Rachel Wells

If individual legislators don’t want General Assembly college tuition waivers handed out anymore, they can start by forfeiting their own, Senate President John Cullerton said today as the Senate passed reforms to the program.

Every year, each member of the legislature is allowed to give one or more students a total of four years’ tuition waivers at a state-supported university. The scholarships have been under scrutiny in the media after reports that some legislators might be using the waivers to leverage or reward campaign contributions. The waivers have also been called an undue burden on state universities, which foot the bill for them and aren’t receiving adequate state funding in the first place.

The reforms proposed in SB 365 include the option for legislators to forfeit their allotted scholarships. Under the measure, scholarship recipients and their family members could not have contributed in the previous five years to the member granting the award and would not be eligible to receive a waiver at a university until they have been accepted as a student. The bill would also require the recipient to reimburse the appropriate university if discovered he or she failed to honestly disclose his or her contribution history with the corresponding representative.

Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said the measure was “meant to address the perceived abuses of the process” of granting the waivers. In the face of accusations that the reforms are merely a public relations move, some senators said the scholarships do help some residents who would not otherwise be able to go to college.

“We want to produce quality constituents out of our districts. I see nothing wrong with this amendment. I think that our General Assembly scholarships is a plus for our constituencies,” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat.

“Here we are hearing from many people that the only thing the state can do is raise taxes, and yet these scholarships are a cost to the state,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said. The Lemont Republican said that over six years, 8,000 scholarships shorted the university system $50 million dollars. “I have a very difficult time going to my constituents and saying we’re continuing these kinds of practices … just send us more money.”

Radogno had proposed SB 3652, which would eliminate the General Assembly waivers, but the bill stalled in a legislative committee.

“To the extent that anybody gives them out, it cost shifts onto those families who have to write those tuition checks,” Radogno said. “Just having people decline giving them out does not solve the problem.”

Other senators said that if elimination of the General Assembly scholarship is to be considered, all other tuition waivers should be considered, as well, because the legislators’ waivers account for only part of universities’ waiver problem.


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