Double Dose of Political Patronage

March 12, 1994

It turns out that the General Assembly isn't the only legislative body in Maryland with its own scholarship scam. As The Sun's Thomas W. Waldron and Eric Siegel reported recently, Baltimore City's elected officials also have been using public funds to play Santa Claus for local college students.

For 126 years, the state's senators and delegates have handed out taxpayer-funded scholarships to constituents. This year alone, lawmakers have nearly $8 million to play with. In past years, all too many Maryland legislators have awarded scholarships to the children of friends, associates and campaign workers -- even to their own offspring.

The city government's program is more modest; the mayor, council members and the comptroller can give away $300,000 this year, or roughly what two senators can award. Still, a patronage scam is a patronage scam, and in this one, city scholarships have gone to people with no financial hardship, just like the state awards.

How Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and others can defend this program, when the money could be put to far better uses in the cash-strapped city, is dismaying. Baltimoreans seeking financial aid can apply to the State Scholarship Administration, as students do elsewhere in Maryland. The city scholarship money should be returned to the general fund. Taxpayers must not be forced to foot the bill for the mayor and company on this one.

Meanwhile, in Annapolis, reform of legislative scholarships has stalled in the Senate. A bill transferring the legislative funds to the state's general scholarship kitty might succeed if not for the blocking tactics of Baltimore City Sen. Clarence Blount. Belatedly, Mr. Blount set a hearing for this Tuesday -- the last possible date for a Senate bill to be heard. This leaves precious little time for the measure to gain passage.

It can't be a coincidence the last two pre-filed bills slated for hearings by Mr. Blount deal with scholarship reform. The senator's stance is especially ironic in that he and other black legislators say the program helps minority constituents, while a state study showed minority students receive markedly fewer grants from legislators than from the state's need-based scholarship program.

Too bad Mr. Blount isn't playing fair on this issue. If his stalling games kill this bill, Mr. Blount and other self-interested lawmakers should be held accountable by voters in the fall elections.

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