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Senate leader backs end to Ill. scholarship perk

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) -- Senate President John Cullerton agreed Wednesday to end a century-old policy of letting Illinois legislators hand out college tuition waivers to their constituents, and a Senate panel quickly approved his proposal.

The House has voted repeatedly to end the legislative scholarship program because of abuses and complaints that it's costly for state universities. But Senate Democrats have backed the scholarships.

Cullerton, D-Chicago, said he now believes the scholarships have become a distraction from bigger problems and should end after September 2012. He said it's unfortunate that some lawmakers abused a program that benefited many people over the years. His proposal also includes a task force to examine all other tuition waivers to public universities.

"We really have to examine why we're spending $364 million on tuition waivers," Cullerton said. "There are a lot of very surprising tuition waivers we've uncovered in our research, and we want the task force to study this and come back with recommendations so we can save money."

Under the legislative scholarships program, lawmakers can award four-year tuition waivers at a state university to two students from their district or give shorter waivers to more students. The program came under fire after reports that lawmakers have given awards to relatives, children of political allies or students outside their district.

The Senate Executive Committee approved Cullerton's legislation 12-1.

One legislator, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Chicago, voted "present." Lightford said the legislative scholarships shouldn't be abolished until a complete review of all tuition waivers is finished.

"We are making a decision on abolishing the scholarships without the findings from the commission," Lightford said.

Lightford said the program is a valuable resource for students, especially when the state doesn't have enough funds for grants to low-income students. Rather than reform the program, she said legislators are dismantling it because of media pressure over a few legislators who misused it.

Cullerton said his proposal is supported by House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. Madigan told reporters he hadn't seen the details and wasn't ready to comment publicly.

Gov. Pat Quinn's office said Cullerton's move to end the program was encouraging.

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said abolishing the legislative scholarships program is the right thing to do. She also supports the commission's goal to review other waivers.

"The issue here is cost shifts onto the other students in the state. We need to be sure we are being fair to them," Radogno said.

Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, said she supports keeping the scholarship program and believes most black and Hispanic senators feel the same, although they may not have enough votes to stop the legislation. She advocates punishing lawmakers who misuse the scholarships instead of eliminating them, particularly when Illinois is cutting other forms of financial aid that make college affordable for minority students.

"We keep reducing and reducing the educational opportunities for our children when we really should be investing more in the system," she said.


The bill is HB3810.