Legislative scholarships again come under fire Some delegates want to kill 'patronage system,' but face Senate resistance

March 06, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Some members of the House of Delegates are trying once again to kill Maryland's $9 million legislative scholarship program because of criticism that it is more of a patronage tool than a means of providing student aid.

But as usual, senators -- who dole out as much as $138,000 apiece, or more than 10 times what each delegate can award -- don't appear willing to give up the program, at least not this year.

"We have an awful lot of items on our plate to be dealing with this year, very important issues," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's. "Now is not the time to engage in frivolities," Miller said, dismissing the House proposal.

The delegates' uphill battle began at a hearing yesterday in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is considering a bill that would abolish the program.

The program's money would go instead to such initiatives as the governor's proposed HOPE scholarships for "B" students or to the state's general scholarship fund.

State lawmakers have been under fire in recent years in part because of a 1992 report by Common Cause of Maryland -- which found that more than 1,200 people who showed no financial need received senatorial scholarships worth more than $500,000 during the 1989-90 and 1990-91 academic years.

Other reports showed that some recipients had family incomes of more than $100,000 and that some legislators' family members, campaign workers and staff were receiving the scholarships.

"If the senators would have played fair, we probably wouldn't be here today, making this request," said Del. Sheila E. Hixson, the committee chairwoman. "It isn't the House that's the problem. Sometimes people spoil things for others."

Hixson acknowledged that she did not expect the bill to get through the Senate this year. Last year, a similar bill died in the Senate Rules Committee and never even received a hearing.

"I've already had a number of comments from various senators, saying, 'Surely you're a year early. We're going to do this next year,' " Hixson said. "How many times have we heard this before?"

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause, praised the committee for at least trying to get the bill passed.

Common Cause has been one of the scholarships' harshest critics and wants a program that more fairly distributes the public's money.

"This is a patronage system whose time has passed," Povich said. "There's no objectivity. No oversight."

Under the law governing the 40-year-old legislative scholarship program, lawmakers are supposed to consider the financial need of each applicant, but there are no guidelines. The legislators have full authority to give the scholarship to whomever they choose, without needing approval by any oversight committee or agency.

The awards range from $400 to $2,000 a year for senatorial scholarships.

Del. Samuel C. Linton, a Charles County Democrat, was the only voice at the hearing that spoke in support of the scholarships. He said they have helped people in his district who otherwise would not have been able to go to college.

"I think it's a terrible loss," Linton said. "I'm proud of every scholarship I've awarded."

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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