Blount feeling the heat

March 16, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

With four weeks left in the 1994 session, people who want to reform Maryland's legislative scholarship program turned up the heat yesterday on one of the program's biggest defenders, state Sen. Clarence W. Blount.

A coalition of public interest, student and minority groups -- including Mr. Blount's own college fraternity -- called for an end to a program that allows state legislators to hand out $7.9 million a year in college aid to constituents.

Instead, witnesses told the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, the nonpolitical State Scholarship Administration should do the honors, as it does with the rest of Maryland's $31 million in financial aid for college students.

"The current delegate and senatorial scholarship programs constitute a conflict of interest and smack of political patronage," said Herbert H. Lindsey, a representative of the Maryland conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"After 126 years, Maryland and perhaps Louisiana are the last deviants among states of the United States of America in the practice of legislators awarding and controlling scholarships at the expense of taxpayers," he told the committee, which Mr. Blount chairs.

Studies show that minorities fare better when the Scholarship Administration distributes aid.

They received only 21 percent of the scholarships handed out by state legislators last year, but 28 percent distributed by the agency.

But Mr. Blount of Baltimore appeared unmoved, saying he did not believe the statistics.

He said he feared that somehow minorities would be cut off from college aid if black senators like himself stopped distributing it. He seemed to suggest that a future legislature would change all scholarship programs to benefit suburban counties and upper-middle income people.

College student Renee Baylin told the committee yesterday that she was "disheartened" to discover that students from well-off families received legislative scholarships.

When she applied for a senatorial award five years ago, she said, she had everything that state lawmakers say they want in a scholarship recipient: good grades, community involvement and a family that earned less than $50,000 a year.

She did not get a scholarship -- but scores of students from families with incomes of $50,000 to $90,000 did. Her conclusion? Students with political or other connections stood a better chance of getting a legislative award than did someone without such connections. "It shouldn't be who you know, but what you know and what you need," said Ms. Baylin, a 22-year-old senior at University of Maryland College Park.

With few rules and no oversight, the state's 188 lawmakers distribute one-fourth of Maryland's college scholarship money, using systems as varied as each legislator.

Each of the 47 senators is entitled to hand out $138,000 annually, while the 141 delegates have $12,200 each to draw upon. The Scholarship Administration, a nonpolitical agency, gives out the rest of the money, mostly on the basis of financial need alone. Those who want to reform the current system received a better reception from the Senate committee than in years past.

The panel has jealously guarded the program from attack for years, killing off reform bills that came its way. But this year, some members of the committee have switched sides, including two facing tough elections this fall.

With a majority of the panel leaning toward or committed to reform, witnesses yesterday concentrated not so much on changing minds but on getting Mr. Blount to bring the bill to a vote this week.

That way it would have enough time to make its way through both houses before the General Assembly's April 11 adjournment.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, would shift the program's funds to the state scholarship agency for distribution based on need. It stipulates that the agency be flexible enough to help students in sudden financial straits. The money also would have to be spread equally across Maryland's 47 legislative districts, as it is now.

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