Beyond propriety

March 25, 2007

Maryland high school seniors might ask themselves: What's the difference between political bribery and the state's legislative scholarship program? The answer is that political bribes are usually financed by private interests, but Maryland taxpayers have the dubious distinction of underwriting the legislative scholarship program - to the tune of about $11.4 million each year.

Last week, by a vote of 39-8, the state Senate approved legislation to reform the controversial scholarship program. But senators ought to be embarrassed by the bill's modest scope. The legislation would only prohibit lawmakers from giving scholarships to their relatives or to relatives of other lawmakers in their district.

Well, as they might say on campus, duh.

It's pretty hard to argue that Senator Moneybags ought to be able to hand out state scholarships to the Little Moneybagses or to Nephew and Niece Moneybags, or have his good friend Delegate Bozo award the scholarships to his relatives. But that's only slightly worse than having the General Assembly's various Moneybagses and Bozos use the scholarships to reward their political supporters or simply to win votes from scholarship awardees and their families.

That kind of political payoff remains perfectly legal, but it shouldn't be. There's simply no reason that senators and delegates need to have the authority to award tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships. The program leaves it to the politicians to judge an applicant's financial need or academic merit.

History shows that such legalized graft dies hard. The legislative scholarship program has been around since the 1920s. And while it's one of the few programs of its kind in the country, a lot of legislators are loath to do anything about it. To their credit, 20 of the 188 lawmakers have voluntarily turned over their scholarship money to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The rest ought to follow suit.

Unfortunately, the status of two other Senate bills should tell voters all they need to know about the future of the program. One would repeal it; that bill has only two co-sponsors, one Democrat and one Republican, and languishes in committee. The other, which passed the chamber unanimously, would give senators the right to award larger scholarships.

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