Zeroing in on the Scholarship Scam

March 10, 1993

Past attempts to eliminate the General Assembly's needless and embarrassing legislative scholarship program tended to be half-hearted. While lawmakers paid lip service to the notion of reform, they never intended to deprive themselves of the political rTC benefit of awarding millions of taxpayer dollars in scholarships to the children of friends, constituents and well-connected associates.

That is, until the current session in Annapolis.

A bill authored by Democratic Del. Henry Heller of Montgomery County and co-sponsored by nearly 20 of his House colleagues overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber's Ways and Means Committee last week. The measure, now carrying added heft as a "committee bill," is expected to win approval in the full House today or later this week.

The current bill would require the state's Secretary of Higher Education to devise a non-political plan that would address the needs of middle-income students who aren't affluent enough to afford the costs of many colleges but are too well-off to qualify for financial aid.

If the secretary's plan isn't acceptable to the General Assembly during the 1994 session, the legislative scholarship money would be transferred to a new Educational Excellence Award program, based on need, to be introduced in mid-1995.

No effort to reform the scholarship scam has ever progressed so far. But this bill's sternest test lies ahead. It must pass a Senate whose members historically have resisted the slightest threat to their scholarship kitty.

Roadblock No. 1 is the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, chaired by reform foe Clarence Blount of Baltimore City. Still, Mr. Blount has warmed slightly to the reform idea, and 12 senators are leaning toward voting to kill the program. That means only 12 more Senate votes are needed. Reform advocates will have to apply heavy pressure to pull off what was once the unthinkable. But stranger things have happened in the legislature. Ask John Arnick.

Passage of this bill can happen if enough senators realize that the scholarship program is turning from a political benefit to a huge political liability. Many a delegate shooting for a Senate seat next year will point out how he or she voted to kill the scholarship scam while Senator Perkmeister did not. If the delegates are smart, they'll make it an issue on the stump next year. If the senators are smart, they'll act to keep it from ever becoming a campaign issue.

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