Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Quinn to lawmakers: Eliminate 'perk' scholarships

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto pen today to urge lawmakers to end the legislative scholarship program for the second time in as many years.

The governor rejected a bill last year that would have put a ban on lawmakers awarding the scholarships to campaign contributors or their families. In the veto message, he called on the legislature to instead approve an abolition of the program. Lawmakers never tried to override the veto, so the underlying bill died.

This time around, Quinn made the changes to the legislation himself. He used his amendatory power to tweak House Bill 1353, a bill that in its original form would bar lawmakers from giving the scholarship to family members. If the General Assembly approves his changes, the program would be eliminated on June 1, 2012.

“For the second consecutive year, I am compelled to return a measure to the General Assembly that fails to comprehensively reform the way legislative tuition waivers are awarded,” Quinn said in the message accompanying the veto.

Quinn signaled today that he would not accept any reform to the program sent to him by lawmakers. “You can’t put perfume on a skunk. This system has had too many problems for too many years, and it’s time to abolish the legislative scholarship program and go forward with a better program.”

In the wake of a federal investigation looking into former Rep. Robert Molaro awarding scholarships to the children of campaign donors, at least one sponsor of wholeheartedly backs Quinn. “I thought I had the perfect bill, and the governor possessed the perfect parliamentary tool to once and for all kill this controversial program,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican. Dillard, who has voluntarily stopped awarding scholarships, wants to push for a vote to approve the change in the legislature's veto session, scheduled for October. “Literally in one day, the legislature in the fall veto session can abolish these scholarships,” he said.

Rep.Robert Pritchard, a sponsor of the bill in the House, said he agrees with Quinn and Dillard that the program should be ended. However, he said he thinks the Quinn should have communicated with him and tried to go about it in a less “backhanded way.”

“I am just disappointed the governor’s office didn’t reach out and let me know that’s what they were going to do with the bill,” said Pritchard, a Republican from Hinckley, said. He said he passed a reform bill because an all-out abolition lacked the support needed for approval. “My bill is a small step because that’s all I could get to move.”

Pritchard still awards the scholarship. He said he does not want his constituents to miss out on the opportunity as long as it exists. “I know they definitely help a lot of students.”

He said he will test the political waters to see if there are enough votes to approve Quinn’s changes before he decides to call the bill. However, he said an amendatory veto might be a way to address the issue quicker and more easily. “This certainly becomes a better solution to that overall problem if legislators cannot award the scholarships in an ethical way.”

Quinn alluded to the scholarships becoming a political lightning rod when every seat in the House and Senate is up for grabs next year. “This will be a time for everybody to say, before filing for election, where they stand on legislative scholarships.”

Dillard said  he thinks there will be more important issues in campaign season, but he did say that lawmakers’ votes would give an indication of where they stand when it comes to legislative perks and government spending. “The General Assembly scholarship is not the most important issue, but it is an important issue. It is a litmus test as to where you fall on the reform scale.” Legislative leaders could choose not to call the bill, and if that happens, Quinn’s changes and the underlying legislation would die.

Quinn wants any money saved by ending the program funneled into the Monetary Awards Program (MAP) for needy students. According to Quinn, 147,210 students received MAP grants in Fiscal Year 2011, but 151,367 were turned away due to a lack of funds. The legislative scholarship program is set up differently. Lawmakers give students tuition waivers, and universities foot the bill. “It’s time now to have a real debate on this. Let’s have a vote, where the legislature hopefully votes to end a perk that they have and instead go forward with a program that helps the common good,” Quinn said.

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