After years of political stalemate in Annapolis, the most powerful supporter of the state legislature's one-of-a-kind scholarship program says he will back a bill next year to eventually eliminate it.
While details remain hazy, Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he expects legislation that would eliminate the program within four years or phase it out over the same time period. The pool of scholarship funds -- $7.9 million this year -- might then be allocated by the apolitical state scholarship administration or at the community level, he said.
Either way, the proposal would "remove any element or hint of politics from the [process] while still making certain that those students of middle-class Maryland have the opportunity to go to college," Mr. Miller said.
Sen. Clarence W. Blount, who as chairman of the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee single-handedly killed similar legislation last year, suggested that he also would support the program's eventual elimination.
"I think the time has come," Mr. Blount said. "And I am sure the Senate of Maryland will be in the forefront of changing the program and coming up with a different formula for the distribution of financial" aid.
With their comments, Senators Miller and Blount appear to have removed the greatest impediment for doing away with the program -- themselves.
"They were the obstacle," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland and one of the program's harshest critics. "They deserve praise for moving in the right direction, a direction that will help restore integrity to the political process."
The 126-year-old program allows legislators to use their own discretion in giving away millions of dollars in scholarship money to constituents each year with few rules and no oversight. Critics have fought for decades to dump the legislative perk -- the only one of its kind in the nation -- arguing that the scholarship money can influence voters.
Some legislators have defended the program as a way to help students who might otherwise fall between the cracks. But some lawmakers have also abused it, awarding scholarships to political friends, relatives and even, on occasion, their own children. Some awards also have gone to families with large incomes.
The House of Delegates has voted overwhelmingly in the past to abolish the program. But similar efforts always have died in the Senate, where legislators have more scholarship money to dole out.
Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening has opposed the program for years. He said Friday that he will try to make its abolition a part of his legislative agenda for the 1995 General Assembly, which opens Jan. 11.
Mr. Blount said he has shifted his position in part because of the constant criticism he received over the issue, especially from the press.
"Last year was enough for me," said the Baltimore Democrat. "You wrote some terrible things about me," he added, referring to The Sun.
Despite the criticism, Mr. Blount said he continued to oppose eliminating the program last year because "it would have looked like I was just being bullied and beaten into shape."
Mr. Miller, a Democrat from Prince George's County, did not say why he now publicly supports abolishing the program.
But several things have changed since the last legislative session -- most notably the political landscape. Mr. Glendening, a rival of Mr. Miller's from Prince George's, appears to be Maryland's next governor and has opposed the program.
"We'll work to dissolve it in its entirety," Mr. Glendening said Friday. "I don't think it's an effective use of scholarship money. I'd like to have a system that is based exclusively on merit and need, administered impartially by a statewide board."
In addition, November's election ushered in a large freshmaclass of legislators, the majority of whom are on record as opposing the scholarship program, according to Common Cause, the self-proclaimed citizens' lobby. Some observers also believe that senators did not want to give up such a valuable perk during the 1994 session, an election year. Asked why he would not move to eliminate the program beginning next year, Mr. Miller said students already have applied for the program and that doing so would not be fair.
Asked if legislators were putting off the program's abolition so they could continue to enjoy its political benefits as long as possible, he gave a long and hearty laugh but declined to answer.
Mr. Miller emphasized that plans to get rid of the program were only in the initial stages and many issues needed to be worked out.
He said he wants to ensure that the scholarship money continues to be distributed evenly among legislative districts. Lawmakers also want to make sure that aid remains available to graduate and junior college students. They are not covered by the general state scholarship fund, which applies only to those who attend four-year colleges.