Fighting the scholarship scam

January 20, 1993

The scam known as Maryland's legislative scholarship program becomes a bigger embarrassment with each passing year.

That's the 125-year-old program in which Maryland's 141 delegates and 47 senators annually bestow scholarships worth millions of dollars on their constituents. No other state has such a program -- and no state needs one.

Elected officials have drawn charges of political favoritism by giving the grants to the children of associates and campaign workers. Some legislators have even displayed the breaktaking gall of handing out scholarships to members of their own families.

This fiscal year, each delegate will distribute some $10,000 in scholarship money, while each senator will be passing around more than $120,000. Yet each student's award is usually only about $1,000 -- a drop in the bucket in comparison to the stratospheric costs of higher education today.

It's enough of a gift, though, to make the recipient and his or her family feel beholden to the pol giving the money. That is a key reason the legislature has held onto the program with the determination of a hungry hound gnawing on a soup bone.

Not all delegates and senators play along. A small but growing number of legislators have turned over their shares of the money to the State Scholarship Administration. To their credit, five of the nine members of Howard County's legislative delegation have washed their hands of the scholarship scam -- Dels. Robert Kittleman, Robert Flanagan, Martin Madden and John Morgan, and Sen. Christopher McCabe.

Mr. Kittleman has been a persistent opponent of the program. Since 1988, he has introduced measures aimed at decreasing or eliminating the scholarships. All have been summarily shot down. But there's hope in the fact that a new Kittleman bill to kill the program has 28 co-sponsors, more than double the number who backed similar legislation four years ago.

One veteran legislative aide says of the program: "It'll go away only when the political liability outweighs the political benefit. It's going to take a lot of negative publicity for that to happen."

Those legislators who have already bowed out must become the drum majors of that publicity campaign, if that's what it will take to make the rest of their colleagues finally realize that this unnecessary and embarrassing program has to go.

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