College grants under attack

Measure would restrict how legislators award constituent scholarships

General Assembly

April 04, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN REPORTER

A House of Delegates committee will take up a bill today that would bar lawmakers from knowingly doling out scholarships to their relatives or the family members of colleagues. But even if the General Assembly approves the changes, critics say, the measure will do little to curb a practice that they say amounts to political patronage.

The legislature's scholarship program has long been debated in Annapolis, with some lawmakers pushing to abandon what they call an antiquated system that invites cronyism, perceived or real. Others defend the practice as a tool to aid deserving constituents who could not afford college otherwise.

Last month, the state Senate approved a bill that would restrict how lawmakers award the scholarships. That measure comes before the House Ways and Means Committee today.

The Sun reported three years ago that several legislators had awarded scholarships to the relatives of colleagues and other politically connected people.

Senators each get $138,000 to distribute annually in their districts while delegates each get $34,488.

"It's amazing when you think about it," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican and critic of the program. "You get $138,000 a year. For a five-year period, that's more than $500,000. With that much money, you can make every person happy. The recipients' parents, sisters, brothers - they all remember that scholarship. You'll never need to campaign again."

Scholarship defenders insist that the program is worthwhile.

Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat who voted for the new restrictions, said she assigns a committee to review applications and make recommendations for awards. Guidance counselors in high schools throughout her district have also alerted her to extraordinary circumstances facing students. Forehand said she has made awards to many needy students, including a homeless man who attended Montgomery College.

"When people look at this and they say, `Oh, it's so terrible and it's so unethical,' they just don't understand the difference this could make in a student's life," she said. "Some of these students don't have anything. You have a student with a lot of potential, but even $2,000 at a community college won't cover the cost of everything."

Forehand sponsored a bill, which the Senate passed unanimously, to increase the maximum award of Senate scholarships from $2,000 per year to the full cost of tuition and fees at the Maryland school the recipient attends. The change makes the awards similar to the House version of the scholarships. Currently, the Senate awards range from $200 to $2,000 a year.

The state's 2008 budget includes $11 million in taxpayer-funded scholarships for the General Assembly to distribute, representing about 10 percent of state-funded financial aid. Lawmakers can dispense the awards as they wish, as long as recipients are Maryland residents who attend a state college or university. Senators must consider financial need, but there is little oversight in determining how they do so.

In raising questions about the scholarships, Kittleman is following in the footsteps of his father, the late Robert H. Kittleman, who worked for 20 years as a delegate and senator to prevent lawmakers from giving out scholarships with few criteria or restrictions.

He said that he thinks most lawmakers have good intentions when awarding scholarships but that even a perceived conflict of interest can be damaging.

"I don't know of any legislator who would do it purely to buy a vote, but there is a perception out there," said Kittleman, the Senate minority whip.

The Senate voted 39-8 last month to keep lawmakers from awarding money to their relatives or the family members of colleagues, with some lawmakers objecting to an effort to "legislate common sense."

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican who sponsored the measure, said he hoped that it would reinforce the integrity of the scholarships.

"If there were no abuses in the past, it wouldn't be necessary," said Simonaire, a freshman senator. "Certainly there's no majority of senators or delegates doing this, but if it happens one time, it's one time too many."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat who voted against the legislation, called Simonaire's measure a "bad bill."

"Nobody does that anyway," Miller said. "Here's someone new to the legislature casting disparagement on all of us who have served honorably for decades."

But some lawmakers have awarded scholarships to relatives of their colleagues.

Several years ago, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden gave $2,100 to the daughter of Del. Talmadge Branch, a fellow Baltimore Democrat. McFadden said he did not know the student was Branch's daughter.

"I had no clue whatsoever who that young lady was," McFadden said yesterday. "It's impossible to know every Branch, every Harrison in your district."

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