ANNAPOLIS – For at least the ninth year, Annapolis lawmakers are taking up the controversial legislative scholarship program, the only one of its kind in the nation.
And for the ninth year, the program is likely to survive because of the Senate’s unwillingness to act, say sponsors of four bills aimed at either reforming or abolishing the program.
“It’ll die again this year,” House Minority Leader Robert Kittleman, R-Howard and a perennial sponsor, said confidently.
But the hearings go on, with the same complaints that the program is a rich source of patronage.
Thursday, the House Ways and Means education subcommittee heard testimony on two bills that would turn over to the Maryland Higher Education Commission the more than $8 million lawmakers can dole out to students annually. The commission would be required to develop an alternative way to distribute the money based on need and merit.
Each of the 47 Senators now gets $138,000 to pass out each year, while each of the 141 delegates gets about $16,000. There are virtually no guidelines for lawmakers to follow when deciding who should receive scholarship money.
Consensus among lawmakers is that if the House legislative scholarship bills pass and are sent to the Senate, they will meet the same fate as two pieces of Senate legislation dealing with the program.
Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, D-Prince George’s, has said the Senate wasted a month fighting over the issue last session and won’t debate the program much this year.
Both Senate bills have been stuck in the Rules Committee for weeks, with no public hearings scheduled.
“They buried my bill,” said Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, R- Carroll, sponsor of a measure that would end the scholarships. “None of the bills are going to see the light of day.”
Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, whose bill would maintain the program but limit senators’ independence in granting the scholarships, agreed: “They’re all going to die.”
The House of Delegates has passed legislation abolishing the program for the last three years, but has not been able to get a bill through the Senate.
Common Cause, a non-profit government watchdog group, has been a leader in the fight against the scholarship program, arguing that legislators should develop public policy and not pass out public money.
“It’s fundamentally flawed,” Deborah Povich, the group’s Maryland director, said of the program. “It’s inevitable that they’ll benefit at election time.”
She said that historically, lawmakers have abused the program, giving scholarship money to family members, campaign workers and staff.
This, however, is not the main concern of lawmakers who favor reform or abolition. They say that abuses are isolated incidents today.
But because the public perceives the scholarship program as patronage, it should be abolished, Ferguson said.
“Perception is reality in politics and the program casts a shadow on all of us,” Ferguson said. “The people should get what they want.”
Colburn agreed: “We can’t erase the perception.”
Reform advocates are optimistic that the program will be dealt with before the next legislative elections in two years.
“The pressure of an election year would create a more favorable climate for meaningful reform,” Povich said. -30-