Scholarship fund is hot potato Lawmakers argue with citizens

February 24, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

Some of the legislators reacted as if they had been slapped -- hard.

They argued with, and in one case harangued, citizens and fellow lawmakers who urged them to give up control of a $7 million college scholarship fund that they dole out to constituents.

The atmosphere in the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday grew noticeably tense as half a dozen witnesses urged the delegates to turn over the scholarship money to a nonpolitical state board that would distribute it more fairly.

They said the current program is a political perk for incumbents, one that helps them win favor with grateful families. Several legislators, including Del. Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard County, and Del. Gerry L. Brewster, D-Baltimore County, have introduced reform bills.

The news media have documented cases in which state lawmakers awarded money to the children of friends, relatives and well-connected constituents, some of whom were receiving six-figure salaries.

Rebecca L. Dubin, a sophomore at University of Maryland at College Park, told the committee that the Student Government Association there generally supports the bill.

She said the aid could still be distributed evenly among legislative districts without involving politicians in the selection process. That "would eliminate any impression of impropriety," she said.

Del. Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore, bombarded her with questions and even accusations -- unusual treatment of a citizen by a lawmaker.

Delegate Davis suggested that because Ms. Dubin grew up in "wealthy" Howard County, she did not support fairness in awarding scholarships. And he accused her of wanting to "set up a bureaucracy" to distribute scholarships.

"You're not in here for reform," Mr. Davis concluded, "or maybe you're here for political reasons."

Ms. Dubin remained cool, telling the legislators that even Howard County has needy students and that she was before the committee to represent her university's student government.

She criticized the current system of distributing the money as lacking uniformity. She said she spoke with one college student who got her money just by calling a delegate, while students in other parts of the state had to send transcripts and write essays for their awards.

Afterward, Ms. Dubin, who received a legislative scholarship herself one year, shrugged off the harsh questioning she received, saying she was used to being called "rich" because she comes from an affluent county. "My question is, why be unfair to the students?"

Currently, each of Maryland's 47 senators doles out $120,000 in scholarships a year with no oversight and few rules. And each of the 141 delegates has about $10,000 to distribute. It is up to the legislators to decide if a student needs the money.

A study by Common Cause of Maryland found that 1,200 of the scholarship recipients received $500,000 worth of senatorial aid in 1989 and 1990 although they had no financial need and their families earned at least $50,000 a year.

The unusual program means that legislators award one-fourth of Maryland's scholarship money for college students. No other state has such a program. The rest of the money is distributed by the State Scholarship Administration based on financial need.

A television station, WJLA of Washington, reported in November that Sen. William Amoss, D-Harford, gave scholarships to two students in a family that earned $172,000 a year, while another student, with family income of just $28,000, was turned down.

Senator Amoss this month introduced a bill that would turn over the responsibility for awarding the aid to local school boards and community colleges.

Nonetheless, it appears unlikely that the 1993 General Assembly will abolish the program, which many members say provides a human touch to an otherwise bureaucratic system.

They claim that delegates and senators are more likely to know about hard-luck cases -- students who do not qualify for financial aid but who need money because of special circumstances or recent family emergencies.

Del. W. Ray Huff cited the case of a family in which the father "makes good money but drinks it up every Saturday night. I have people everyday who say, 'Ray, I'm glad you have the scholarship program because otherwise I'd have to send my kid to jail to get a scholarship,' " the Anne Arundel Democrat said.

Even if a bill were to pass the House, many lawmakers say, it's highly unlikely the Senate would approve it.

"If you think for one minute the Senate is going to pass this thing, then you must believe in the tooth fairy," said Ways and Means Chairman Tyras S. Athey, D-Anne Arundel.

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