* The Chicago media has been in an uproar this week about how former legislator Bob Molaro gave legislative scholarships to children of a supporter who lived outside his district. But the nonprofit news site ChicagoTalks.org found last year that this was a widespread problem…
Sixty-two members of the Illinois General Assembly broke the law over the course of six years by awarding free tuition to the state’s public universities to 122 college students who didn’t live in the right legislative district.
The state lawmakers – several of whom serve in leadership positions – violated the law they had passed in the 1970s, the last time major changes were made to the century-old legislative scholarship program. Controversy over the program flared again this past year after a series of articles by ChicagoTalks that found repeated instances of scholarships being awarded to campaign donors, politically connected families and, in at least one instance, a lawmaker’s relative. ChicagoTalks also identified five legislators who require scholarship applicants to register to vote, a practice one constitutional lawyer called illegal. […]
ChicagoTalks contacted the offices of all 62 lawmakers. Those legislators or staff who responded to interview requests confirmed they made mistakes and offered explanations like an aide for Rep. Karen May (D -Highland Park) did, saying the student received the scholarship because his application had been delivered by a guidance counselor from a school that was located in the district.
The student moved to a different district, but because he had started the school year at Highland Park he was able to finish the school year there. Since his application came from a school in the district, they assumed he lived in the district as well.
An aide to Sen. Larry Bomke (R-Springfield) said she assumed the senator had all of Rochester in his district, but now realizes that a portion is in another senatorial district.
“I look all of them up, and these two fell through the cracks,” said Lori Bottrell.
Sen. Pamela Althoff (R-McHenry) said the five students who received scholarships outside of her district were overlooked because they lived on the borders. […]
Most of the students willing to talk were unaware they applied and received a scholarship out of district. But, one recipient, Jasmine Lindsay, said Rep. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) gave her the scholarship even though she knew Lindsay didn’t live in district. Lindsay said the representative told her father that students in her district were not taking advantage of the program.
“Annazette wasn’t getting reached out to so she reached out to me,” said Lindsay.
* Hat tip to the Chicago Tribune editorial page, which had this to say today…
We hope the U.S. attorney saw that story.
The law, on the books since 1905, allows each of the state’s 177 lawmakers to award the equivalent of two four-year scholarships to a state university. It’s supposed to help students who might not otherwise be able to attend college. But too many lawmakers have come to regard the scholarships as a personal entitlement, something they can use to reward supporters or please their pals. Who pays for it? Other students. The Legislature doesn’t fund the scholarships, so the universities pass along the costs in the form of higher tuition.
* As you probably already know, Gov. Pat Quinn used his amendatory veto power on a legislative scholarship bill to eliminate the program…
Gov. Pat Quinn on Wednesday ratcheted up pressure to abolish the state’s oft-abused legislative scholarship program, asking lawmakers to end the century-old perks this fall and to voluntarily stop handing them out now.
For the second year in a row, Quinn used his veto powers on a bill seeking to tighten the tuition waiver program at public universities. Last year, he vetoed the entire bill. This time, he rewrote the measure to ban the scholarships.
What’s also different this year is that the governor acted only days after the disclosure that federal authorities have subpoenaed the legislative scholarship records of former state Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, who retired in 2008.
* Mark Brown has some history in his column today…
Investigative reporters have been pointing out the abuses since at least the early 1970s, always followed by a movement to eliminate the program. Each and every time nothing has happened.
“I doubt if you’ll ever get rid of it. It’s just considered another plum that you’re entitled to because of your office, and members don’t want to give that up.”
That’s what a prescient Chicago Democratic legislator told my former Sun-Times reporting partner Chuck Neubauer back in 1974. Neubauer, then at the Tribune, had been part of an investigation revealing numerous abuses, including one state senator giving a scholarship to his own wife, another awarding hers to the daughter of a Chicago alderman and a state rep who picked her own daughter.
But Neubauer would be the first to tell you he didn’t invent the genre. Somebody else had done similar stories before him.
* Gov. Quinn said this week that instead of legislative scholarships the state should strengthen the Monetary Award Program. But the state program has its problems as well…
Potentially hundreds of failing Chicago State University students received state financial aid even though their grades were so low that they shouldn’t have been allowed to take classes, according to testimony Wednesday at a state hearing.
The money could have gone to other low-income students in Illinois, Sen. Edward Maloney, D-Chicago, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said at a meeting to review a troubling financial audit and other campus issues. […]
Maloney, who requested state financial aid information after the Tribune report, said that during the 2008-09 academic year, 449 Chicago State students received state grant money even though, under university policy, an untold number of them should have been dismissed for poor academic performance.
Of those students, 106 had a grade-point average of 0.0 and still received aid from the taxpayer-funded Monetary Award Program, known as MAP.
The state’s largest grant program for low-income students is persistently underfunded, and 151,000 qualified students were shut out of aid last year. The maximum MAP award is $4,968 a year. [Emphasis added.]