Legislative luxury

March 11, 2004

SHAME ON the Maryland senators and delegates who have further sullied an already questionable perk of office by using state scholarship funds as friends-and-family grants.

For too long, Maryland legislators have clung to their patronage pot, now roughly $11 million in taxpayer-funded college scholarships. They should have loosened their grip long ago to let financial aid experts run this program.

Let's face it: It's too easy for the legislative scholarship program's vote-buying value to tempt misuse. How else can one explain elected officials handing scholarships to the offspring and kin of fellow legislators and political associates? We aren't saying that their children aren't promising or bright or eligible for state college aid. We're saying: Call this what it is - an unfair advantage of political connection.

Granted, such awards may constitute only a minority of the roughly 11,000 scholarships, worth $200 to $2,000 each, given annually by state legislators. But they embarrass a program already deeply flawed because it operates with few guidelines to direct the selection of winners. Neither need nor merit is required. In effect, there are 188 different programs under one heading - each of Maryland's 47 senators and 141 delegates is free to invent scholarship criteria.

That's hardly an equitable way to disburse public aid at a time when state college tuitions have risen by double digits, pushing even middle-class families into the need category. The Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) now has 5,000 students on its waiting list for college aid.

These include 152 applicants from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's district; 78 from Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr.'s; 200 from Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier's; 89 from Sen. Philip C. Jimeno's; and 64 from Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden's. Aren't these constituents as deserving as the children of politically connected families?

Yet each of these legislators has given scholarships to the kin of fellow lawmakers or political associates, The Sun's reporter Alec MacGillis found in a review of state records.

They should take a cue from state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican who lets MHEC distribute his $138,000 share of the patronage pot. The agency selects students in Mr. Kittleman's district from its list of applicants for need-based aid.

Only nine senators and 24 delegates this year turned their funds over to MHEC to manage this way. They've figured out they can earmark the dollars - for need-based or merit programs and for the local community colleges, for example - and do lots of good for constituents.

It's the only way to redeem an otherwise dubious system that lets lawmakers dole out roughly one in seven of Maryland's financial aid dollars.

If they can't muster the will or votes to kill the program, the least state legislators can do is join Mr. Kittleman in taking the high road.

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