Senators keep influence over scholarships

March 22, 1995|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

State senators yesterday overwhelmingly defeated an effort to remove themselves from direct involvement in the awarding of up to $138,000 a year in scholarships to their constituents.

As many as 16 senators put aside their campaign promises in voting to retain senatorial influence over the controversial $6.5 million scholarship program.

Taking a step toward reform, the Senate gave tentative approval to a measure that would require senators either to turn over their scholarship money to the state scholarship board for distribution based on need or to set up committees in each of their legislative districts to dispense the money.

Four of the nine members of the committees would be appointed by the district's senator.

A final vote on Senate Bill 855 could be taken later this week. Passage would send it to the House of Delegates, where separate legislation to completely abolish both Senate and House scholarship programs is expected to be approved.

Differences between House and Senate versions of bills on the same topic would have to be worked out by a joint conference committee.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Baltimore Democrat who helped devise the Senate compromise, disputed a newspaper editorial that characterized the proposal as "a charade" and said the measure actually "charts a center course" between those who want to abolish the program and those who want to leave it as it is.

He said the measure preserves the flexibility of the old senatorial program, which allows scholarships to be awarded based on merit or for reasons other than financial need. Some senators argue that middle class constituents sometimes need a modest financial boost to get into or through school or that an applicant's special circumstances might deserve consideration.

But Senator Blount, acknowledging without specifically ZTC mentioning the criticism that scholarships over the years have sometimes been awarded to friends, relatives or campaign supporters of individual senators, said, "We tried to distance the senator from the awards and placed it with an impartial committee. The senators are not controlling."

During last year's political campaigns, 23 of the 47 senators responded to a Common Cause/Maryland candidate questionnaire by saying they would vote for legislation that removed elected officials from all aspects of awarding scholarships.

But an amendment offered by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky that would have accomplished that change by requiring that senators turn over their scholarship money to the State Scholarship Administration was defeated 35-to-9.

Sixteen senators who had told Common Cause last year that they would vote to remove elected officials from the awarding of scholarships voted against the Pinsky amendment.

"It's the public's worst fear," said Common Cause executive director Deborah Povich. "Say one thing and do another."

Of the nine votes for the amendment, seven came from freshmen.

The Pinsky amendment would not have changed the amount of money that would have been dispensed for scholarships to applicants from each legislative district.

Rather, it would have limited the involvement of senators to setting the criteria to be used by the state scholarship board in dispensing the money for that district.

"It basically abolished [the program]," said Mr. Pinsky, a freshman Democrat from Prince George's County.

"It would have left a little flexibility so senators would have felt some involvement.

"It was a soft way of getting rid of it."

After the Pinsky amendment failed, another freshman, Montgomery County Democrat Christopher Van Hollen, pushed an amendment that would have prohibited the proposed nine-member district scholarship committees from awarding scholarships to themselves or family members.

The amendment failed by a voice vote.

Senator Blount said it was "a miracle" that he was able to bring a scholarship reform bill to the full Senate, given the strong support for the program among incumbents.

Senator Blount said there was pressure to allow a senator to appoint five or six members of the district committee but said, "We bowed, not to pressure, but to superior thought."

In addition to the four members appointed by the senator, each nine-member committee would include three members appointed by the local board of education, one by the local board of community college trustees, and one by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Maryland's 127-year-old legislative scholarship program is believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation.

But the Senate's proposed changes would affect only the Senate's portion of the program, not the House scholarship program.

"Let the House do what they want to do," Senator Blount said.

ROLL CALL

The state Senate voted yesterday to modify Maryland's legislative scholarship program but rejected a proposal that would have totally removed senators from the process of handing out $6 million a year in college aid to constituents. Here's how senators voted on that proposal:

YEA: (9)

Craig, David, R-Harford

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