Maryland's scholarship scam

October 15, 1992

By bowing out of the state-funded legislative scholarship program, eight Maryland lawmakers hope to shame their colleagues into recognizing that the 124-year-old program should be abolished.

Del. Gerry Brewster (D-Baltimore County) is the latest to surrender his portion of the scholarship kitty.

And what a kitty! During this fiscal year, the 140 members of the House of Delegates will hand out $1.47 million in scholarships, while the Senate's 47 members will award a total of $5.8 million.

To some Marylanders, the program has become an embarrassment, and not just because ours is the only state in the nation practicing such largess. Elected officials have drawn charges of political favoritism by bestowing aid -- usually no more than $800 per student -- on the children of associates and campaign workers. Some lawmakers have even given grants to their own family members.

Legislators argue that their hand-picked recipients are as needy as anyone, and that committees have been established to provide the names of scholarship candidates to the delegates and senators. The problem, however, isn't so much who gets the grants as it is who gets to pass them out.

Critics of the program say the grants benefit the pols more than the students. Any aid is welcome, of course, but an award of up to $800 seems minuscule next to today's college costs. Yet it's enough to make the recipient and his or her family feel beholden to the politician making the award. Which is why most lawmakers love this program.

The critics also cite the unfairness of giving equal amounts of money to each legislative district. Montgomery County districts, for example, receive the same as those in Baltimore City, although the two jurisdictions don't have the same level of need.

For more than a decade, legislative attempts to reform the program have failed, including two Brewster bills aimed at both legislative chambers. Still, Mr. Brewster will return next year with a proposal to release the delegates' money to the State Scholarship Administration, which would then award need-based grants in each district. Mr. Brewster has given up trying to wrest the funds from the grip of the senators, at least for now.

In the meantime, the eight who already have relinquished their money to the scholarship administration are waiting to see if other lawmakers will follow their lead.

Their hopes aren't high, though. Explains one of the eight, a legislative veteran who notes how protective of the program most legislators are: "It's a windmill I don't tilt at anymore."

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