Financial aid based on potential or patronage?

Grants: An unusual program that allows state lawmakers to hand out $11 million each year draws allegations of impropriety.

March 07, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

As thousands of needy students sit on waiting lists for financial aid, Maryland legislators are handing out nearly $11 million a year in taxpayer-funded college scholarships to almost anybody they want - including their colleagues' children.

Defenders of the legislative scholarship program, which has survived repeated attempts to abolish it, say the absence of rules lets lawmakers grant money to deserving students who might otherwise fall through bureaucratic cracks.

But a review by The Sun shows that political considerations sometimes appear to play a role. Examples of scholarships given to families with political ties since 2000 include:

Then-Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat, gave a scholarship worth $4,000 over four years to Wanda Irby, daughter-in-law of former state Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr., now head of the Baltimore liquor board.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller gave a total of $2,600 to the two sons of Robert J. Antonetti Sr., the former Prince George's County elections supervisor. Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, has been a top defender of the legislative scholarships.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden gave $2,100 to Chanel Branch, daughter of a fellow Baltimore Democrat, Del. Talmadge Branch.

Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, gave $200 to the son of then-Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Republican who shared her district. A year later, Redmer, now the state insurance commissioner, gave $300 to Klausmeier's daughter.

Klausmeier defended the awards last week. "My daughter applied, and she was lucky enough to get it," she said. "There was no, `Hey, just give it to me.' ... Should she have been penalized because of who I was? It wasn't like it was an astronomical amount of money."

Although the scholarships are sometimes relatively small, the nearly $11 million total amounts to 14 percent of the $76 million the state is spending on financial aid this year. With tuition at public colleges skyrocketing, about 5,000 students are on a waiting list for the state's main needs-based aid program.

For legislators, the scholarships are a substantial source of patronage. Maryland's 47 senators get $138,000 each to distribute annually in their districts, and the 141 delegates each get about $24,000.

In one of the few rules governing the program, the scholarships are limited to $200 to $2,000 a year and generally must be used at a two- or four-year college in Maryland, public or private.

Lawmakers disagree

The law encourages senators to consider need, but that is not defined. Students often get awards from more than one legislator, and the scholarships are renewable, as long a student stays in good academic standing.

The only similar program in the country is in Illinois, where legislators give out about $6 million in tuition waivers at state colleges. That program has also survived repeated attempts to do away with it.

Critics of Maryland's program, which dates back more than a century, acknowledge that some recipients from connected families might be deserving students. But they argue that letting lawmakers distribute aid tilts the odds toward people inside the political loop who know about the program and whose children inevitably benefit from name recognition.

In effect, the program gives each legislator a taxpayer-funded way to gain the favor of up to several hundred families in the legislator's district every year.

"It's wrong from every standpoint," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican who has long opposed the program. "It's a way of giving power to incumbents. It buys a lot of votes."

Miller, the Senate president, defended the scholarships, saying they allow legislators to take individual circumstances into account in a way that the formulas of other financial aid programs don't allow.

"There is a human side that faceless, nameless bureaucrats are incapable of addressing," he said. "A computer could do their job."

Miller acknowledged that the program is susceptible to misuse, but he said that is not sufficient reason to do away with it. "All in all, when you look at the program, its value over the years outweighs ... any potentiality for abuse," he said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he would be in favor of ending the program, particularly if legislators are giving awards to one another's children. "That stuff is over the edge. There's no reason for a legislator's child to get money from another legislator," Busch said.

Political connections

None of the program's critics suggests that questionable scholarships make up more than a small minority of the roughly 11,000 given each year. But in scanning the list of scholarship awards, it is not hard to find names with political connections.

After Jacob J. Mohorovic Jr. lost his House of Delegates seat in 2002, a fellow Dundalk Democrat, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., gave Mohorovic's daughter a $200-a-semester scholarship.

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