ANNAPOLIS – Senators who voted this week to pass a watered- down bill to abolish legislative scholarships say the measure is the only chance for reform this year.
But critics say the bill makes no real improvements to the program, which some regard as little more than a rich source of patronage for lawmakers. The compromise bill, skeptics say, will not remove legislators from the awards process.
At issue is an $8 million annual pot, $138,000 for every senator.
The Senate’s compromise calls for a nine-member committee in each senatorial district to distribute the awards. Each senator would appoint four members. Others would be named by the county government, the county’s board of community college trustees and the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
“The bill we passed clearly doesn’t do what needs to be done,” said an exasperated Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s. “But a protest vote voting no would have been self-defeating.”
Pinsky proposed an amendment giving the funds to the state scholarship board to distribute by district. The amendment was defeated during Wednesday’s floor debate.
The public interest watchdog group Common Cause, a long-time opponent of the scholarship program, said the Senate bill did not do enough to remove elected officials from the process.
The committee would notify scholarship recipients on a senator’s letterhead, and legislators would still take credit for the awards, said Deborah Povich, executive director of the group’s Maryland chapter.
“The current bill is only a very small effort,” she said.
Common Cause distributed a list of 23 senators who the organization said had indicated in a pre-election questionnaire that they would vote for legislation to remove elected officials from the scholarship process. Thirteen, however, voted against Pinsky’s amendment.
But some senators on the list defended their votes and said Povich’s group was hindering chances of a compromise reform. The Senate bill and a tougher house measure will soon be assigned to a conference committee.
“There were not enough votes to completely overhaul the system,” noted Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester. “What I would like to ask Common Cause is, what other program is going to pass that they’d like me to vote for?”
Sen. Timothy Ferguson, R-Carroll, said Common Cause was too “dogmatic.”
And Sen. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, said he voted against the Pinsky amendment simply to get the Senate to pass the compromise.
“Am I 100 percent happy with it? No,” Boozer said. “But we wanted to get something that was a step in the right direction.”
But Sen. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery, made no apologies. She favored the committee system.
“Why should a governmental agency and a computer know better than dedicated community leaders?” Forehand asked. “What people are trying to do is kill a fly with a sledgehammer.”
Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, said he voted against Pinsky’s amendment because he feared the rural areas would not get their fair share of funds. “There was no guarantee there would be a geographical balance,” he said.
Even now, some members of the House of Delegates think the House and Senate bills are too different for compromise.
Minority Leader Robert Kittleman, R-Howard and sponsor of a House bill to give the funds to the state scholarship board, called the Senate bill “bad news.”
“It’s an attempt to hold on longer,” Kittleman said.
However, Del. Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery and sponsor of a bill similar to Kittleman’s, said she was hopeful that the differences could be worked.
With emotions running high on the issue, Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil, apparently had scholarships on his mind during a Senate debate on Friday.
“I don’t care what Common Cause says, I don’t care what the media says, I have done nothing wrong insofar as senatorial scholarships are concerned,” he intoned.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George’s, quickly interrupted Baker and reminded him that the Senate was discussing lobbying reforms, not scholarships. The Senate exploded in laughter, which Baker joined after a few embarrassed seconds. -30-