Another Round in Battle over Scholarship Scam

February 21, 1993|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

Not unlike Pavlov's dog responding to the clang of the dinner bell, I can't help getting a warm feeling whenever I hear the name of a certain Maryland politician.

It's all because this pol -- let's call him Senator Pavlov -- gave me a few hundred dollars in state scholarship money each of the four years I attended a private Maryland university.

Well, this dog is about to bite the hand that fed him.

I have nothing against the good senator. I've never even met the guy. And certainly my parents and I appreciated the scholarship money.

Still, we could have gotten along without it. The grants -- which I believe were payback for my mother's occasional work on behalf of Pavlov election campaigns -- amounted to only a tiny fraction of all my college fees. Meanwhile, more than 10 years after I graduated, Senator Pavlov continues to hold a hallowed place in family's pantheon of local heroes, thanks to those little scholarships.

Not a bad return for the senator, on funds -- general tax dollars, in fact -- that weren't even his in the first place. His dividends become greater when my family is multiplied by the dozens of others to have received similarly small grants over the years. Picture it: Hundreds of Marylanders having the Pavlovian response whenever the senator's name rings out.

No other state in the union has anything like Maryland's legislative scholarship program, which enables members of the House of Delegates and the Senate to hand out several millions of dollars annually to students in their districts, like kings bestowing gifts on their subjects.

You'd think the singular status of such a program would embarrass the politicians into abolishing it.

You'd think wrong.

On the contrary, state lawmakers have clung tenaciously to this pet piece of political patronage, fending off any legislative attempts to put it out of its misery. About five years ago, when the House stirred with a bill to end the program, the pols responded by actually increasing the amounts they could give away.

As a result, the Senatorial and House scholarship kitties will jump, respectively, from $5.8 million and $1.5 million this fiscal year to $6.5 million and $1.7 million in fiscal 1995.

Each senator annually gets some $120,000 to hand out. The average Senate grant per student is only about $550 -- the better to spread the patronage as widely as possible. Each delegate has about $10,000 to dole out, and yet manages to give individual grants slightly larger than the average Senate scholarship.

Could a lot of students use the money? Absolutely, even such a relatively piddling amount as a few hundred bucks. The problem, however, is that lawmakers often give grants to people not because they need them but because they happen to be the children of the pols' associates and financial backers. Some legislators have even given money to members of their own families.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, we had a name for that when I was a boy. We called it unmitigated gall. And we still do.

Common Cause of Maryland, a staunch opponent of the scholarship program, issued a report last year focusing on the Senate's use -- or misuse -- of the grants. The study showed that in fiscal 1990, the senators gave $572,000 in scholarships to students with no financial need as determined by state standards.

More than 80 grants were given that year to families with $H incomes ranging from $80,000 to $172,000. In fiscal 1991, a $500 grant was given to a University of Maryland student from a family with a $263,000 income.

That most of these students from well-to-do families attended low-cost public universities makes these awards all the more outrageous.

Facts such as these have led a number of legislators, especially in the House, to declare that enough is enough. Del. Robert Kittleman, a Howard County Republican who since the late '80s has presented legislation to abolish the program, is back this year with another bill.

The Kittleman bill will have a hearing this Tuesday before the House Ways and Means Committee. The legislation is said to have a better shot at success with Ways and Means than it ever had with the far less sympathetic Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, which had previously considered anti-scholarship measures.

Del. Henry Heller, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee on education, is also preparing a bill to do away with the scholarship program. His legislation would phase out the program after 1994. He's hoping this might persuade potential opponents in the General Assembly (read: senators) to eliminate the program in exchange for the ability to keep using it up to next year's election.

Common Cause executive director Phil Andrews says about half of the House currently can be counted on to support such legislation. The Senate, with only a dozen or so sure backers, will be a tougher nut to crack. Even if the House passes a bill, its chances of getting through the other chamber appear slim.

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