Legislators cling to one-of-a-kind scholarship perk

February 09, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- While Maryland legislators are cutting almost everything else this session, the odds are good they'll hold onto one of their most cherished political perks -- the $6.4 million scholarship fund they dole out to constituents.

Despite attacks from critics, particularly in the Republican minority, the program is likely to survive as the only one of its kind in the nation -- one that gives each senator more than $100,000 a year to disburse with no oversight and few rules.

"Let's face it, if you've given out a scholarship to somebody, that person and that person's family will owe a certain debt to you," said Del. John S. Morgan, R-Howard, who received a senatorial scholarship in graduate school.

A critical study by Common Cause of Maryland showed that the average scholarship award between 1987 and 1990 was less than $600 per year -- not enough to make a big difference in a tuition bill but enough, the study concluded, to buy some political good will.

"It's really the state's money and it ought to be based on need and merit and not on the whims of a legislator," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, the only senator who turns over his share to the State Scholarship Administration to distribute according to need.

The program has been tarnished by a history of legislators giving scholarships to supporters, friends and an occasional relative.

Many lawmakers zealously defend the program as an effective way of reaching middle-class students in need who may not meet strict national financial aid requirements. Others say the days of handing out awards to political friends are long gone.

But a survey by The Sun found that old-fashioned politics lingers.

Sen. Frederick C. Malkus, the senior member of the legislature, has given awards worth several hundred dollars to at least three relatives in the past four years.

The latest was William B. Malkus, who received "a couple hundred dollars" from his cousin, the senator.

Mr. Malkus, a 45-year veteran of the General Assembly, makes no apologies. The student deserved and needed the money, he said.

"The fact that he was recognized, I think, has done something for the boy," Mr. Malkus, D-Dorchester, said of his latest beneficiary.

And when it comes to collecting scholarships, it always helps to know him, Senator Malkus said.

"In all fairness, there may be a couple hundred extra dollars given to someone for personal reasons with a connection," he said.

Mr. Malkus and the other 187 state lawmakers are free to give their scholarship awards to almost anyone they choose.

Maryland's 47 senators have more than $100,000 each at their disposal, while the 141 state delegates have about $9,000 each. In all, lawmakers will hand out 25 percent of Maryland's $24 million scholarship pool this year. The State Scholarship Administration, which awards grants based on need, gives out the rest.

To shield themselves from charges of political favoritism, some lawmakers set up committees to pick scholarship winners. But critics argue that it doesn't matter who receives the awards, just handing out the money is political gravy for lawmakers.

"Lawmakers can buy good will from people who aren't already supporters," said Common Cause Executive Director Phil Andrews.

Many well-to-do families wind up with legislative awards. For example, Sen. Leo E. Green, D-Prince George's, gave awards to 13 students with family incomes of more than $80,000 in 1989, Common Cause found. Senator Malkus gave a $500 award to a student whose family income topped $163,000.

Just four years ago, legislators were handing out only $3.2 million a year. But in 1988, with a healthier state budget, lawmakers voted to boost the size of the program. It will total more than $8 million by 1995.

Most senators defend their scholarships, which have a 120-year history.

"It's good because I'm hitting kids in a program that the state scholarship program isn't hitting," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County.

Legislators said they're likely to know more about a constituent's real financial situation than state scholarship officials. For example, a senator might know that a relative is sick or that a middle-class family has more than one child in college, things that wouldn't always show up on a student's financial aid information sheet.

But, in some cases, who the student knows is more important than what the student needs.

Michelle Hart, for example, was a fine candidate for a $1,500 annual scholarship, according to Sen. George W. Della Jr. He'd known her family for years. "She is truly a nice kid," said Mr. Della, D-Baltimore.

"More importantly," Mr. Della added, "she's helped me out in the past, done work in my campaign."

Mr. Della acknowledged that Michelle's volunteer work in his campaigns gave her an advantage in the scholarship process, which can be competitive.

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