Legislative Scholarships: Arnick II?

BARRY RASCOVAR

March 14, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Is the state Senate about to confront Arnick II? That could be the case if senators once again thumb their noses at the public over abolishing their much-cherished $7 million college scholarship program.

There probably is nothing in the State House more egregious to the public than this political giveaway. The entire notion of politicians mucking around in college scholarships is malodorous. Yet the 47 senators cling tenaciously to this perk.

The underlying message is that senators are far better equipped to decide who gets a scholarship. They'll tell you bureaucrats do such a lousy job that someone has to watch out for the interests of the middle-class students. And no one, they imply, is better able to do that than your neighborhood senator.

Once before in this session senators assumed that wiser-than-thou attitude. They were convinced no one outside the legislature could reach an informed verdict on John S. Arnick as a District Court judge.

When allegations of abusive sexual language by Mr. Arnick surfaced, senators huffed that the outrage was unjustified. Why, they knew the real John Arnick; the public didn't.

That arrogance only made matters worse. Marylanders recognized unacceptable behavior when they saw it; their own representatives didn't. No wonder there was such intense public ire.

Only with great reluctance did senators relent. They did so with great bitterness.

Senators will be even less willing to bend on the scholarship question. It hits close to home. It's one thing to deny a former delegate a judgeship, quite another to deny yourself $480,000 to hand out to district students. Think of the young voters (and families and relatives) you can impress, or the campaign workers you can thank with a scholarship!

But standards are changing. The public's appetite has been whetted by the Arnick affair. Will radio talk shows and newspapers rise up against this legislative excess, too?

Fear of that kind of reaction convinced House Speaker Clay Mitchell and others in the House to swallow hard and abolish political scholarships. Now it's up to the Senate.

Judging from past experience, these lawmakers will do almost anything to keep this program alive.

The operative cover story has already been propounded by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller: He found it absurd the Senate should do away with this program "in these recessionary times when middle-class Marylanders are finding it increasingly difficult to find scholarship money, that we should seek to eliminate a major source of financial aid to students."

Yet the House bill does no such thing. It would remove politicians from the hand-out program by setting up a new middle-class scholarship program based on need.

Maryland remains the only state in the nation with political scholarships. Sixty years ago, The Sun was writing about finagling with these awards. One article from August 18, 1932 begins, "An enactment to forbid State Senators to award State-controlled scholarships to students in the public schools will be presented today by State Senator E. Milton Altfeld, Fourth Legislative district."

Mr. Altfeld, a city senator, explained his goal was to "get politics or possible politics out of this. There is no place in the education of youth for politics, petty or otherwise."

That's about what Common Cause is saying today. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Only in the last 20 years, though, has the extent of the skulduggery been clear.

Former Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III gave scholarships to two sisters-in-law and a cousin. Verda Welcome gave a scholarship to the son of a doctor-councilman. Another city senator, William "Bip" Hodges, gave his own son a scholarship. Theodore Bertier of Anne Arundel County gave his own daughter the maximum Senate scholarship award. Marvin Mandel, when speaker of the House, arranged for senators to give his son and his daughter scholarships.

Need clearly isn't the prime motivating factor. How else do you explain Sen. William Amoss of Harford County, who gave scholarships to two students whose family earned $172,000 a year and yet he turned around and rejected a scholarship request from a student whose family earned $28,000 a year?

Common Cause found in 1989 and 1990 that a half-million dollars was handed out by politicos to 1,200 students who had no financial need. A 1989 Washington Post study found $1.5 million awarded to students with no need, while 2,700 students in need of $12.8 million in college aid were turned down.

It's no accident the average Senate scholarship grant is a puny $550. By giving away lots of small awards, senators spread the political benefits as broadly as possible.

Will the public get so angered by this arrogance that senators are shamed into abolishing their patronage perk? Will this be Arnick II? Don't count on it. Senators can be awfully stubborn when a personal plum is threatened. And the $480,000 worth of scholarship aid a senator gets to hand out each term is among his or her juiciest perks.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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