Vote on Senate Scholarship Reform

April 07, 1994

Politicians who wonder why the public has such a low opinion of them should turn their attention to the Maryland Senate, where two "princes" of that body have been playing the sort of undemocratic games Machiavelli himself would have cheered.

The issue is the legislative scholarship scam: Lawmakers dispense patronage and purchase political good will by awarding millions of taxpayer dollars to children of associates, friends and relatives. Efforts to reform this shameful program gathered momentum last year, winning wide support in the House but stalling in the Senate.

Yet 1994, an election year, figured to be when even the stubborn Senate would relent. For the first time, the Senate panel that handles reform proposals, chaired by Baltimore Sen. Clarence Blount, apparently has the votes to recommend a measure transferring the patronage funds to the State Scholarship Administration. If the bill reaches the Senate floor, it would likely pass.

That's a big "if" because of Mr. Blount and Senate President Mike Miller. They know reform legislation would gain Senate approval once Mr. Blount scheduled a committee vote. Not only would that put lawmakers out of the scholarship business, senators would have to take a public position. Any senator who voted against a reform bill could take a lot of heat on the campaign trail. The Miller-Blount solution? Prevent the vote.

Black students, however, shouldn't be pleased if the program survives. Twenty-eight percent of the awards given last year by the general state scholarship program went to black applicants, while only 20 percent of the legislative awards went to blacks. As usual, the pols took better care of suburban white kids than they did urban black kids with real need. Still Mr. Blount insists the legislative program helps him and other black lawmakers ensure that minority students get their share of the grants.

Wrong. What concerns Mr. Blount and other defenders of the program is ensuring the continuation of this precious perk. That's why the senator resorts to blocking a committee vote. No legislator should hold that much power. No Senate president should allow it. Senators Miller and Blount have enough time to schedule a vote on this long-overdue reform. But do they have enough sense of what is right? We're all waiting and watching.

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