Students may no longer be able to receive scholarships from their legislators if a proposal to curb the program makes its way through the General Assembly this year.
Because the state’s legislative scholarship program — which grants lawmakers money to provide scholarships to their constituents — has limited criteria, many have feared the program’s susceptibility to abuses by legislators. Sen. Jim Brochin (D-Baltimore County) proposed a bill that would shift scholarship responsibilities from the General Assembly to the state’s Higher Education Commission to prevent politics from influencing who receives award money.
“It needs to be something that’s uniform and not subject to the political whim of a legislator,” Brochin said. “There’s nothing stopping a legislator from giving it out to their cousins or brothers or sisters or campaign worker, and it’s happened before.”
State senators are given $138,000 each year to distribute to constituents, while delegates can dole out the equivalent of four four-year full-time scholarships per term. Lawmakers differ from district to district on how much they distribute and to whom they award the money.
Although lawmakers have been working for decades to alter the program, reform efforts have been to no avail, as they have not garnered the support necessary to make their way through the legislature.
Illinois had a similar program that saw several failed attempts to eliminate it. Opponents of the program had to clear numerous hurdles before doing away with the 100-year program, said Emily Miller, policy and government affairs coordinator of the Chicago-based Better Government Association.
“Once you get a perk as a lawmaker, it’s hard to give it up,” Miller said.
But it may just require a change of mood in Annapolis to get the bill to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s desk, said Sen. Allan Kittleman (R-Carroll and Howard).
“Someday there will be enough members of our body who will say to themselves, ‘You know, it really doesn’t look good,’” Kittleman said. “You would hope that people would start being tired of legislators spending their money — their tax dollars — in a matter that may not be in the best interests of their constituents.”
Because the state’s effort to change the program doesn’t eliminate scholarships — it instead shifts the responsibility to higher education officials — it will ensure they are more fairly distributed by keeping out legislators who may have a political stake in awarding grant money.
“The money’s the same, but politicians’ hands don’t touch it,” Brochin said. “I think that that’s a job better done by people in the higher education field.”
There are still many, such as Del. Doyle Niemann (D-Prince George’s), who are unwilling to part with their constituents’ scholarships. The potential for abuse gave impetus to this push to keep politics out of scholarship awards, but Niemann said he hasn’t seen or experienced the kind of problems legislators often cite in opposition.
“This is sort of one of those unthinking efforts to have ‘good government’ without really looking at the reality of what’s done,” Niemann said.
Kittleman said scholarships can have an unfair influence in the political process, with sitting lawmakers holding onto votes as long as the scholarship dollars continue to flow to their constituents.
“It’s a legislative perk that gives an incumbent a tremendous advantage,” Kittleman said.