Bill targeting legislative scholarships has uncertain future


SPRINGFIELD -- A proposal to eliminate tuition waivers that state legislators dole out to constituents ran into a buzzsaw of opposition Wednesday, and it’s unclear whether the proposal will get an up-or-down vote before a key deadline today.

The House Executive Committee put off voting on House Bill 227, sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, and Franks wasn’t sure it would even get a vote today, when all non-budget bills are supposed to be through committees in their respective chambers.

Franks said the state needs to save money, and the so-called legislative scholarships are a place to start. Aid to students should be given out based on need and merit, he said.

“It’s probably the hardest to defend,” Franks said of the tuition waivers.

Under state law, each lawmaker can award the equivalent of two four-year waivers per year. Many legislators split those up, handing out eight one-year waivers.

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has called for the end of the program, which has come under fire because some lawmakers have awarded the vouchers to members of their families or those of friends or campaign contributors.

The legislature does not pay for the waivers, leaving universities to eat the cost. The total cost in fiscal year 2010 was $13.9 million for 1,487 waivers provided by legislators for undergraduate and graduate tuition and fees.

But other legislators said that to save real money in higher education, the state should look at eliminating all tuition waivers, such as those given to university employees. In fiscal year 2008, 47,000 waivers were issued at a cost of $346 million at public universities alone.

The state and higher education institutions give waivers to athletes, the academically talented, graduate assistants, veterans, staff members and ROTC and National Guard students.

Rep. Ed Sullivan, R-Mundelein, said some Republicans have been talking about reviewing all waivers.

“Let’s do all of them,” he said. “Let’s not have employees be able to have their kids come in.

“Obviously, there have been abuses in our side because it can be a political issue. But if we want to save money, let’s do away with all waivers.”

Franks said he was willing to discuss the idea.

“I think we need to look at the entire system,” he said. “Perhaps we could be saving money by not giving waivers to all the children of employees. Maybe they have to be there a certain amount of time, or work a certain amount of hours.”

Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, spoke in favor of keeping legislative tuition vouchers.

“Why don’t you start looking at some of the salaries that some of these presidents make … instead of taking it away from the kids,” Acevedo said. “In my community, I’ve helped people become lawyers, doctors, teachers, and I want to continue that. If it wasn’t for these waivers, they would never have that opportunity.”

Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.