Sitting on scholarship reform

February 21, 1994

It's disturbing, though hardly surprising, to report that Senate leaders are sitting on a bill to reform the sham by which state legislators annually award scholarships totaling more than $7 million in public funds to college students.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paula Hollinger of Baltimore County, would transfer the funds to the state's general scholarship kitty. It also would require that 1) the money be split evenly among Maryland's 47 legislative districts, and 2) students with late-breaking emergencies be given consideration. As Ms. Hollinger says, the measure would take the politicians out of the process, at the same time answering the main criticisms of lawmakers who have blocked past reform attempts.

Why, then, is the Hollinger bill languishing, unscheduled for a hearing in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee? Put the blame on the committee chairman, Sen. Clarence Blount of Baltimore City. Mr. Blount just flat-out doesn't like this bill or any other that would remove what he and many of his colleagues regard as one of the sweetest perks of legislative life.

However, the fact remains that state senators and delegates have long abused this perk. In fiscal 1990, for example, the lawmakers handed out $572,000 in scholarships to 1,200 students with no financial need as determined by state standards. The taxpayer-funded grants are primarily political tools, as indicated by all the awards bestowed by legislators on the not-so-needy children of friends, campaign workers and associates.

Mr. Blount's stance is made particularly ironic by his insistence that the scholarship program allows him and other black legislators to take care of minority constituents. Yet a state study showed that non-white students received markedly fewer grants from legislators last year than they did from the state's general, need-based scholarship fund. In addition, 1,600 minority students would have gained $1 million more in aid if the legislative kitty had been folded into the general fund, which awards 75 percent of state scholarship money.

The chairman knows there are enough votes on his committee to bring the Hollinger bill to the Senate floor, where there also appears to be a majority that realizes allowing this shameful program to continue won't sit well with voters come November. Meanwhile, in the House of Delegates, a body that has been more sympathetic toward abolition of the program, three reform bills will be heard next Wednesday by the Ways and Means Committee. Among legislators and citizens alike, there is momentum to kill the scholarship scam. Mr. Blount should schedule the Hollinger bill for a hearing, and soon. If he won't, Senate President Mike Miller ought to light a fire under him. Otherwise they'll have to take the heat on the campaign trail.

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