Senate President John Cullerton said Wednesday he hopes a set of proposed changes in the way lawmakers hand out scholarships will put to rest the notion that the waivers are just a political perk. The Senate Executive Committee and the full Senate voted without opposition Wednesday for Senate Bill 365, which aims to blunt criticism that politicians give out the scholarships to state universities to those with connections. The measure now heads to the House.
Senate President John Cullerton said Wednesday he hopes a set of proposed changes in the way lawmakers hand out scholarships will put to rest the notion that the waivers are just a political perk.
The Senate Executive Committee and the full Senate voted without opposition Wednesday for Senate Bill 365, which aims to blunt criticism that politicians give out the scholarships to state universities to those with connections. The measure now heads to the House.
The Cullerton-sponsored bill would prohibit lawmakers from giving scholarships to students whose family the lawmaker had taken money from in the last five years. It would also prohibit the recipient from donating to that lawmaker for five years after receiving the award.
"The goal is to address the perceived abuses of possibly giving these scholarships out and then going out and getting campaign contributions (from the recipient or their family)," Cullerton said.
Other parts of the measure would limit lawmakers in giving the scholarships out to students in their own district, prohibit lawmakers from giving the scholarships to students who haven't been admitted to college yet and give lawmakers the option to forfeit the scholarships completely.
Passing Cullerton's bill, though, meant squashing three nearly identical bills calling for the scholarship program's demise.
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, and State Sens. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, and Mike Frerichs, D-Gifford, all had bills that opposed the waivers.
Radogno said Cullerton's bill was a step in the right direction but simply "nibbles around the edges."
Radogno said the bill does little that would change the public's perception of the scholarships and essentially passes on the costs to other students, many of whom are just as poor as those receiving the scholarships.
"There is no tolerance amongst citizens for these types of perks to be out there" Radogno said. "People see them for what they are. They have been misused and there are instances where legislators give them to contributors or political workers.
"With that type of background it's difficult to say all of a sudden that they are pristine. They haven't been and they aren't now."
Frerichs said the scholarships put too heavy a burden on universities.
Since the scholarships aren't associated with any actual money – instead, the state mandates colleges cannot charge the recipient tuition – universities are stuck with picking up the tab.
"This is an unfunded mandate and if we are really serious about providing scholarships for people, we should fund them," Frerichs said.
But Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westmont, said the scholarships are too important to take out of lawmakers' hands.
She added the perception of corruption among the program is completely false.
Lightford, who said she handpicks her scholarships recipients without any other input, said the unfunded mandate part should not be a reason to get rid of the waiver.
"It's been that way for years but it is something that is needed," she said. "We are at a point where (we are looking at) those who are struggling the most and we are taking away an opportunity to gain higher employment or education or both. It's not timely to take away the scholarships if you look at the economy."
Brian Feldt can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.