Key House panel may vote to kill scholarship plan

March 05, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

For the first time in recent memory, a House committee is expected to vote in favor of abolishing the often-criticized scholarship program controlled by state lawmakers.

With the support of House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., the Ways and Means Committee is expected to vote as early as today on a bill that would end the legislative scholarship program in October 1995, several lawmakers said yesterday.

Maryland is the only state in the nation that allows senators and delegates to distribute scholarship money. They dole out $7 million a year -- one-fourth of the state aid available to students. The State Scholarship Administration gives out the rest based on financial need.

Critics have attacked the program for years as being open to abuse by legislators seeking to curry political favor. Newspapers and television stations have reported on senators who gave scholarships to relatives, friends and wealthy constituents.

One reason for the sudden momentum in the House is Speaker Mitchell, a Kent County Democrat who has put his political weight behind the reform movement.

"This is the year we need to address it to see if it's possible to end it in the near future," Mr. Mitchell said yesterday. "I really just think the people think there is too much politics involved, and we're trying to be responsive to what people are talking about out there."

Said House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole: "There are cases of a few abuses that call for reform. The image that comes from this is damaging to the institution." The public believes that the scholarship system is tainted, he said.

Critics say legislators, whether they intend to or not, receive political benefits from doling out money to grateful families in their districts.

Each of Maryland's 47 senators doles out $120,000 in scholarships a year -- with no oversight and few rules. The 141 delegates have about $10,000 each to distribute.

Although delegates have much less money to give out, they have been reluctant to abolish the program, in part because the Senate would not go along with them.

According to legislative sources, the reform bill being pushed in the House is a rewrite of one introduced last month by several Democrats. In addition to ending the legislative scholarships by October 1995, the measure will call on the state's Higher Education Commission to develop guidelines for a new program to replace them.

The General Assembly, in turn, would hammer out details of the program next year. It would continue to be aimed at helping middle-income students and those facing financial emergencies. Delegates and senators would not be involved in handing out the money.

Current recipients of legislative scholarships would continue to get their money renewed until they graduate, one delegate said.

Despite Speaker Mitchell's backing, the House bill faces mighty opposition from some veteran delegates as well as senators who staunchly support the current program.

They say their involvement adds a human touch to an otherwise bureaucratic process. The scholarship agency only considers information on standardized forms while legislators are able to consider special circumstances affecting families in their communities, they say.

Supporters of the program say it helps families who earn too much money to receive financial aid but who nonetheless need help paying ever-rising tuition bills.

When told of support for reform in the House, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. pointed out that the Senate also has been working on reform efforts, although of a different nature.

"We're downsizing government. The Senate voted to abolish keno. I assume the House is going to abolish keno as well," the Prince George's County Democrat said. He declined to comment on the House plans for ending the scholarship program.

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