Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Legislators vote to ban free tuition for their families

By Lauren N. Johnson

The Illinois Senate sent a bill to Gov. Pat Quinn today that would bar lawmakers from awarding college tuition waivers to family members. However, some supporters say the measure only serves to help clean up a program that ultimately should be eliminated.

House Bill 1353, sponsored by Rep. Robert Pritchard, a Hinckley Republican, would exclude legislators’ relatives, including relatives by marriage, from eligibility to win General Assembly scholarships. The bill passed in the Senate with no opposition today after being approved by the House in April.

Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican who sponsored the measure, said, “While many of us no longer give legislative scholarships, we still need to make the law clean for those who do so.

The General Assembly scholarships program, which cost state universities $13.9 million in fiscal year 2010, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, is the second most expensive waiver program in which colleges are required to participate. Veterans’ grants and scholarships are the most expensive programs. Under the law, each legislator can dole out four-year tuition waivers for the University of Illinois and one other state school to students in their district. The scholarships are sometimes split among several students, such as awarding a one-year waivers to each of four applicants.

Dillard said the bill serves as a protection against nepotism that most legislators thought was already in place. “I was surprised that legislators were not prohibited from giving scholarships to relatives. … This puts one more safeguard into a law which I think should be abolished,” Dillard said.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont and Dillard introduced bills in past legislative sessions to eliminate what Dillard called an “archaic” tuition waiver system.

Patty Schuh, Radogno's spokeswoman, said the program is an unfunded mandate that requires state public universities and colleges to absorb the costs of students who receive the waivers and puts a burden on other students who attend the school and pay their tuition in full. “It’s a cost-shifting mechanism that its time has come to be ended,” Schuh said.

The bill awaits a decision from Quinn. When lawmakers passed legislation intended to reform their scholarship program last spring, Quinn sent the bill back to them, saying it did not go far enough. “Our colleges and universities face millions of dollars of unpaid bills. At a time when students are being deprived basic assistance and we are asking our institutions of higher learning to operate with scarce resources, I cannot affix my signature to a measure that allows student assistance to be based on anything other than need and merit,” he said in his veto message. Legislators failed to revisit the issue during last year's fall veto session, so the bill died.


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