Charade of Scholarship Reform

March 21, 1995

Don't be fooled by the efforts of state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and Sen. Clarence Blount of Baltimore City to craft so-called reform of Maryland's legislative scholarship program. It now appears that Messrs. Miller and Blount have been engaged in a scheme that they intend to fob off as earnest reform but actually is a cynical charade designed to keep the program going in its current form for many more years.

Funded this year by $8.5 million in taxpayer dollars and prone in the past to abuses by the legislators who personally award the grants, the scholarship program finally became such an embarrassment that the House of Delegates has voted repeatedly in recent years to surrender its share of the pot to the State Scholarship Administration.

The Senate, however, has a higher threshold of embarrassment. With their mitts on three-quarters of the money in the program, the senators have been reluctant to relinquish a perk that pays them high dividends on an investment that costs them nothing. Remember, the taxpayers foot the bill, and the lawmakers hog all the credit given by the grateful families who receive scholarships -- including families who have no financial need yet are politically important to the legislators.

At last acknowledging the growing public outcry over the program, Senate leaders have just created a proposal that would enable a member either to let the state distribute his or her share of the money (about $125,000 per senator) or allow the awards to be made by a nine-person committee to which each senator would name four people. This is a step toward reform -- a baby step. Many senators already appoint scholarship committees. Moreover, the plan to let them shape the new committees means the senators would still enjoy an unacceptable degree of involvement in a function that is none of their business.

It's a charade. Indeed, Mr. Miller has made it clear that any senators who try to strengthen the bill with reformist amendments will have a formidable enemy in the Senate president when their pet projects are considered. Also, House leaders say they will amend the Senate bill so it resembles the delegates' call for total abolition of the program.

That would play right into the hands of Mr. Miller and Mr. Blount, who then could shake their heads and say, "We wanted to fix the program, but those people in the House are just too unreasonable." At which point all so-called reform efforts would be killed for another year, leaving the nation's only legislative scholarship program to continue for the pleasure of those who operate it -- and who, to their shame and discredit, can't bring themselves to let go.

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