One man appears to be standing in the way of efforts to pry Maryland legislators' fingers from a $7.9 million pot of scholarship money.
With less than two weeks left in the General Assembly session, bills to abolish the legislative scholarship program are stuck in a committee led by Baltimore Sen. Clarence W. Blount. Reformers fear that he plans to let the bills die there by refusing to schedule a vote.
The measures would take the college scholarships away from legislators and give them to the nonpolitical Maryland Scholarship Administration to distribute.
The legislative scholarships have been plagued over the years by reports of lawmakers who gave awards to the children of relatives, friends, well-off constituents and political supporters.
Mr. Blount, chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, allowed the deadline for sending Senate bills to the House of Delegates to come and go Monday, dimming the future of Senate-authored reforms. A similar House proposal landed on his desk two weeks ago, but it has not even been scheduled for a hearing.
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, the author of one reform bill, is not holding her breath for a vote. "The best indication I've had from Senator Blount is a strong tacit understanding that there would be no vote on that bill," said Senator Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Mr. Blount, also a Democrat, makes no secret of the fact that he likes the 126-year-old scholarship program just the way it is.
But he refuses to say whether he will give his committee a chance to pass or defeat the bills. If there is no vote before the legislature's April 11 adjournment, the bills are dead.
Senator Hollinger and others say the reforms would pass if brought to a vote. Six of the 11 members have said they would vote for them, and a seventh said he likely would.
In several interviews, Mr. Blount declined to say if he would allow a vote. At a hearing two weeks ago, the public-interest group Common Cause and two minority organizations asked him to schedule a vote before the week ended.
The senator later bristled at their request. Mr. Blount, who is black, suggested that the groups -- including the NAACP and a black fraternity -- would not have dared ask a white committee chairman to vote by a certain date.
"They wouldn't do it to Walter Baker [a white chairman], so why do it to black me?" he asked.
Representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity said they were surprised by Mr. Blount's remark.
Herbert H. Lindsey of the Maryland conference of the NAACP said he would gladly have asked a white chairman to take a timely vote. The hearing had been scheduled late in the session, he said, and he was aware that further delays could hurt the bills' chances.
Hanley J. Norment of Alpha Phi Alpha, which counts Senator Blount among its members, said he had heard that Mr. Blount might prevent a vote.
"The reason I'm concerned about this is that another black legislator from Baltimore said that this type of tactic was likely to happen, and it looks very suspicious," said Mr. Norment, who represents the fraternity's Montgomery County alumni chapter.
"To not hold a vote would be a subversion of the democratic process," Mr. Lindsey said.
Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, agreed. He said it was "ludicrous" to suggest that race played a factor in his lobbying.
Common Cause contends that politicians should not give tax dollars directly to potential voters, whether it be in the form of college scholarships, welfare or any other government aid.
Mr. Lindsey cited similar "good government" reasons for the NAACP's support. He also noted that minorities do not fare as well when legislators distribute college aid.
According to state records, minorities received only 21 percent of the scholarships handed out by senators last year, but 28 percent of the awards from the Scholarship Administration.
That nonpolitical agency hands out about 75 percent of Maryland's college aid, most of it based strictly on financial need.
The state's 188 lawmakers distribute the remaining $7.9 million, using systems as different as each legislator.
Each of the 47 senators is entitled to hand out $138,000 annually, with few rules and no oversight. The 141 delegates have $12,200 each to draw upon.
Senate leaders have traditionally guarded the program, saying it rewards top middle-class students who might not otherwise receive needed help. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Prince George's County, for one, likes the program as much as Mr. Blount does.
Mr. Miller said he has not involved himself in the issue of when or whether the bills would come up for a vote.
"If we have a break in the 16-hour course of business and we're not dealing with items of great interest to the majority of Marylanders, I will look to the committees to see what issues have not been been looked at yet," he said.
The Legislative Black Caucus, which is made up of the General Assembly's 31 African-Americans, has not taken a position on scholarship reform.