Senate moving toward eliminating legislative scholarships


SPRINGFIELD -- With a switch in position Wednesday by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, the General Assembly scholarship program could be on its last legs.

Cullerton previously favored mending the program, which has been in effect since 1909, instead of ending it. On Wednesday, however, he took over sponsorship of a bill to abolish the program, and the bill, House Bill 3810, then was approved by the Senate Executive Committee. 

“It’s unfortunate, but at the same time, these scholarships have been abused and it’s time to end them,” Cullerton said.

Numerous news reports have highlighted how some lawmakers have given the scholarships – actually, tuition waivers -- to political insiders and their relatives.

Not every lawmaker agrees with getting rid of the program. Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Chicago, criticized news media and groups like the Better Government Association for overemphasizing the  minority of legislators who have had “mishaps” involving the waivers.

The Associated Press reported in 2008 that Lightford had given a scholarship to the wife of a lobbyist.

“Being a watchdog doesn’t provide opportunities for people when you are trying to get that one-line story or that front-page story,” Lightford said. “It affects lives.”

Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago also voiced support for the program. He read letters from constituents who needed or were grateful to receive legislative scholarships.

“We’re giving opportunities to these students who normally wouldn’t have them,” Trotter said.

Lawmakers would have to stop granting tuition waivers on Sept. 1, but Cullerton said scholarships for the 2012-13 school year would not be affected.

The bill was amended to add a task force to examine other tuition and fee waivers offered at public universities. “There are a lot of very surprising tuition waivers we’ve uncovered in our research,” Cullerton said.

The amended legislation must return to the House and pass there. Cullerton said House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, supports the bill.

Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said the program should be ended, is expected to sign the measure if it is approved by the legislature.

“This is the right thing for deserving students who need financial assistance to attend college and the right thing for taxpayers who deserve better than the status quo,” said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.

David Thomas can be reached at (217) 782-6292.