Senators reject move to give up scholarship pot Panel members accuse journalists of inciting public

March 20, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

An indignant Senate committee yesterday refused to kill one of the General Assembly's most cherished political perks, the $7 million legislative scholarship program.

By a 7-4 vote, the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee rejected a House bill that would have removed state legislators from the business of awarding college scholarships. The money they award would have been turned over to a nonpolitical state agency to distribute to students.

A few committee members blasted the news media in general, and The Sun in particular, for stirring up the public and planting doubts about politicians' integrity. News reports over the years have documented cases in which legislators awarded college scholarships to the children of relatives, friends, campaign workers, party officials and constituents with six-figure incomes.

Sen. Idamae Garrott said she did not understand why some people objected to the idea of politicians handing out thousands of taxpayer dollars to constituents. "I don't know why there seems to be a bad connotation to the word 'politician,' " the Montgomery County Democrat said.

The 125-year-old program, the only one of its kind in the nation, has always been dear to the Senate.

Each of the 47 senators has $120,000 a year to hand out in almost any way they see fit, while the 141 delegates have $10,000 each. Together, they distribute one-fourth of the scholarship money awarded to Marylanders. The State Scholarship Administration gives out the rest based on student financial need.

"Senators don't quite get it that it is an inherent conflict of interest to award political scholarships to constituents," said Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause, a public interest lobby that is trying to change the program.

Many senators angrily defend their program as a good one that helps many deserving, middle-class students who otherwise would be denied an education. They say it is the nonpolitical State Scholarship Administration that does a poor job, not themselves. Politics, they said, never enters into their own awards.

One committee member, Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, tried to save the House proposal by amending it to address senators' concerns. The Anne Arundel Democrat's amendments attempted to ensure that the nonpolitical scholarship program being created would help the same students as the legislative one.

He got only four of the 11 votes -- and a lecture from Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat and retired teacher who supports the current program.

Mr. Collins accused Mr. Winegrad of introducing the amendments in order to get favorable publicity from his local newspaper.

"I really resent that," Mr. Winegrad shot back.

Scholarship reform may have been doomed on March 5, the day it overwhelmingly passed the House Ways and Means Committee. That same day, the Ways and Means panel killed an unrelated Senate bill that would have abolished the keno lottery, angering Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat.

Mr. Miller, a staunch supporter of senatorial scholarships, immediately linked the two subjects, talking about the keno legislation when asked about the House scholarship bill.

Several legislative sources predicted that the Senate would kill the scholarship bill, as it was inclined to do anyway, if the House rejected the keno bill.

Mr. Andrews of Common Cause said he expects the Senate to reform the scholarship program next winter, before it becomes a campaign issue in the 1994 election. He also noted that he had picked up two new votes yesterday, from J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Wicomico Republican, and Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Ms. Hollinger said she supports the senatorial scholarships but voted to abolish them because of public pressure -- pressure fueled by what she views as unfair news reports. "The perception that the public has is that this is a giveaway program, and because that perception is out there, it's important to get rid of it," she said.

Her opponent in 1994, Sen. Janice Piccinini, also a Baltimore County Democrat, has turned her scholarship money over to the state administration to distribute.

THE COMMITTEE VOTE

The Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee yesterday defeated a House bill that would have abolished Maryland's legislative scholarship program. Here's how committee members voted:

Voting for the bill

Hollinger, Paula C., D-Baltimore County

McCabe, Christopher, R-Howard

Stoltzfus, J. Lowell, R-Somerset

Winegrad, Gerald W., D-Anne Arundel

Voting against the bill

Blount, Clarence W., D-Baltimore

Collins, Michael J., D-Baltimore County

Dorman, Arthur, D-Prince George's

Fowler, C. Bernard, D-Calvert

Garrott, Idamae, D-Montgomery

Lawlah, Gloria, D-Prince George's

Miedusiewski, American Joe, D-Baltimore

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