Commmon Cause assails Senate scholarships Too many awards not based on financial need, it charges

January 16, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun Laura Lippman and Marina Sarris of the Annapolis Bureau of The Sun contributed to this article.

ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland's senatorial scholarships are a $5 million patronage pool more useful for keeping lawmakers in office than paying tuition, Common Cause of Maryland charged yesterday.

By doling out small sums to large numbers of voters, senators use the programs to maximize their political muscle, said Common Cause's executive director, Phil Andrews.

"In Maryland, the road to re-election in the state Senate is paved with scholarship money," Mr. Andrews said. No other state gives legislators that kind of fund, he added.

Mr. Andrews also charged that senators often make awards to students who don't demonstrate financial need.

The General State Scholarship program defines "need" as the difference between the cost of attending a state school and a family's ability to pay. That ability is determined using guidelines set by Congress.

A bill to abolish the Senate program will go before the House Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law today.

The legislature has been quick to kill similar legislation in the past. Del. Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard, sponsor of this year's bill, offered the same legislation last year. It got only five votes in committee and died. But Mr. Andrews and Mr. Kittleman, who attended a Common Cause news conference on the new study, said they think it has a better chance of passing this year, when most state spending is being slashed.

Common Cause found that between 1989 and 1991, about 1,200 students got senatorial scholarships although they "showed no financial need and their families had incomes of $50,000 or more."

Several senators disputed the study's account of their scholarship acitivity and Common Cause's definition of need. They did not share the group's concern about the program or support its abolition.

"Kittleman is just a delegate who wants to be a senator," said Sen. Michael J. Wagner, D-Anne Arundel.

The scholarship program, Mr. Wagner said, is worthwhile. "It adds a human touch in the community that the scholarship board doesn't have," he said.

Several other senators agreed, noting that they appoint committees to screen applicants for need and merit. Many said they don't participate in making awards -- though they do review the list of winners.

Some senators said they would oppose shifting their scholarshipo money to what they see as a less-informed and less-sensitive state agency.

Currently, the State Scholarship Board awards 75 percent of Maryland's scholarship money based on need. The senators and delegates control the other 25 percent.

Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, said bureaucrats make scholarshiop decisions based on strict rules that often don't consider a family's real needs.

The only senator who agreed with Common Cause on the patronage issue was Janice Piccinini, D-Baltimore County, a former president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

"I agree with rescinding the scholarships, but I take issue with Common Cause on the issue of need. They overgeneralize on that subject," she said

Often, the formulas do not take into account families with several children in college at the same time, as well as family illness and other problems.

On political patronage, she agreed with critics. The average Senate scholarship, she said, "buys you a book."

"I gave everyone $1,500 until I ran out of money," she said. "I feel I truly contributed to that person's education. Spreading the money out to a lot of people is wrong. You're not helping people."

Ms. Piccinini was elected in 1990 and her scholarships did not appear in the Common Cause study.

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