Pressure grows to end scholarship program

January 23, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron and Marina Sarris | Thomas W. Waldron and Marina Sarris,A Sun computer analysis of State Scholarship Administration records for 1992-93./STAFF GRAPHICStaff Writers

State lawmakers will face unprecedented pressure in coming weeks to end one of their most cherished perks, the legislative scholarship program.

With the entire General Assembly up for re-election this year, efforts to abolish the scandal-tinged program appear to be gaining crucial support in the Senate, a traditional roadblock to reform.

At stake is the power of senators and delegates to hand out $7.9 million a year in college aid. With few rules and no oversight,

lawmakers have produced a hodgepodge of systems in Maryland's 47 legislative districts.

Indeed, for many students, their hometown has more to do with their chances of winning a scholarship than they realize.

The odds of winning, the size of awards and the family income of recipients varies greatly from district to district, according to an analysis by The Sun of the scholarships for the 1992-1993 school year.

While some legislators resolutely defend the 126-year-old program, a growing list of critics say it is outdated political patronage that will rile voters already in an anti-incumbent mood.

Those critics have a potentially important new ally, the NAACP.

"I think [legislators] would be foolish to keep this issue around during the election," said Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a citizens lobbying group that has made the scholarships its No. 1 issue this year.

"If they abolish the system now, they can run as reformers in the election. If they stiff-arm the reform again, they are subject to strong attack by challengers."

Last year, a bill to do away with the program passed the House of Delegates but died in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee on a 7-4 vote.

This year reformers have picked up one more ally on the committee, and two other members say they are leaning toward change.

Lawmakers have introduced four bills that would turn over the money to the state's main scholarship agency, which would select recipients based on uniform guidelines.

The legislative scholarship program, the only one of its kind in the nation, gives Maryland politicians an opportunity to hand out public money directly to constituents.

And some taxpayers are not happy about it.

"They would rather see it out of 'political' hands, and I see no reasonnot to accommodate constituents' requests. It's their tax money, and they have a right to say how the money should be spent," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who is sponsoring one of the reform bills.

The program has received a black eye over the years from reports of lawmakers awarding scholarships to the children of relatives, friends and political supporters.

Such incidents are not new. Almost a half-century ago, a report by independent experts found that "senators are not always as discriminating as they might be in the selection of recipients."

Even if lawmakers do not use the program to reward old friends, they can make new ones by giving money to hundreds of potential voters every year, critics say.

A few legislators concede that point.

"It does help an incumbent to be awarding that much money a year," said Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a Democrat from Glen Burnie.

A new ally

This year reformers have the support of the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"We call upon the General Assembly to demolish the diversion of these funds to the political whims of senators and delegates," said Herbert H. Lindsey, chairman of the state conference's political action committee.

The money, Mr. Lindsey said, should be given out by the State Scholarship Administration on the basis of need and academic potential.

The Scholarship Administration already gives out three-fourths of Maryland's $31 million in college aid, mostly on the basis of financial need alone.

Lawmakers distribute the rest. Each of the 47 senators is entitled to hand out $138,000 annually, while the 141 delegates have $12,200 each to draw upon. However, seven senators and 16 delegates now allow the Scholarship Administration to select their winners.

Family incomes vary

Senators say they seek needy students, particularly those who fall through the cracks in other college aid programs. But just who qualifies as "needy" varies from district to district.

The Sun's analysis found that the average family income for legislative scholarship winners ranged from $17,500 in Baltimore's 39th District to $56,183 in Prince George's County's 27th District last year.

Senators from Montgomery County, the wealthiest subdivision in Maryland, awarded grants to students with lower family incomes, on average, than senators in poorer jurisdictions such as the Eastern Shore and Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

The average family income for Montgomery winners was $31,200, compared with $47,000 in less affluent Prince George's.

One possible reason is that the Scholarship Administration chose the recipients for two of Montgomery's six senators in 1992.

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