ANNAPOLIS – They’ve seen the bills before. They’ve sat through hours of similar arguments.
But lawmakers who want to abolish the controversial legislative scholarship program are cautiously optimistic that this year they will succeed.
The House Ways and Means Committee heard testimony Wednesday on two bills that would hand over the $8 million now under lawmakers’ control to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
The commission would be required to create a new method of distribution, based on need and merit rather than politics.
The legislative scholarship program has virtually no restrictions on which students get money. Critics say the program is mainly used to buy votes, and charge that few needy students see the funds.
House Minority Leader Robert Kittleman, R-Howard, has introduced a bill to kill the program for the past eight years, and the House of Delegates passed it in 1993 and ’94.
The bill died last year when Sen. Clarence Blount, D- Baltimore and chairman of Economic and Environmental Affairs, refused to bring it to a vote in his committee.
Now the main obstacles are two:
– The Senate, which remains cool to the bills, according to both Kittleman and Del. Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, Ways and Means chairman.
– The Higher Education Commission, whose Secretary Shaila Aery recently announced the agency’s opposition. Distributing scholarship awards by legislative district, which the bills require, would cost the commission about $1 million per year, she said.
Hixson, who has sponsored one of the bills, disputed Aery’s estimate, saying that computers could make the distribution more cost efficient.
And she predicted that with increased awareness of the scholarships, “public pressure will be the deciding factor” this year.
Kittleman testified briefly Wednesday, and warned in an interview afterwards that, “because of the public outrage, the program is costing us votes.”
Last year, each of the General Assembly’s senator was eligible to distribute $138,000, while delegates could distribute $12,200.
Kittleman, noting that disparity, added that “in the Senate, it is still producing more votes than it is costing.”
Deborah Povich, Maryland director of the non-profit government watchdog group Common Cause, said that pressure from Gov. Parris N. Glendening could persuade senators to pass one of the bills.
But, she acknowledged, “I think the financial difference between what the senators have and what the delegates have really is the obstacle.”
Nora Putt, a representative for the American Association of University Women, testified Wednesday that the reform bills provide a better method for distributing the funds.
“Delegates and senators are not experienced in financial aid administration,” she said.
But Eugene Harvey of Severna Park pointed out that the current program is a major source of state assistance to part- time and returning students.
“These students need the money most,” Harvey said. “These students are not going to school to go to football games or join fraternities, they’re going to school to learn.” Hixson responded that the bill requires the Higher Education Commission to earmark funds for part-time and returning students. -30-