Quick Hit Matthew Blake Monday March 26th, 2012, 8:27pm

Cullerton Foresees Senate Vote On Legislative Scholarship Ban

The office of Illinois Senate President John Cullerton – the most powerful person in Springfield opposed to banning legislative scholarships – says the legislator won’t stand in the way of a vote on the tuition waiver ban.

“Like any other bill, it will go through the normal committee process and there will be an opportunity for a vote,” says Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon. Phelon’s comments follow reports that the Senate President may work to prevent the bill from getting a vote.

The Illinois House passed legislation 79-25 Wednesday to ban legislative scholarships.

How much Cullerton may yet leverage his power to prevent an identical bill from passing the Senate – and being signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn – is unclear. But the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge), also anticipates a vote.  “I have every indication that it will be called, and I expect it to happen fairly soon” Kotwoski says.

“We have 34 co-sponsors,” Kotowski adds, a majority of the 59-person Senate. “There’s a very high level of bipartisan support for this bill that hasn’t existed before.”

Legislative scholarships let each state lawmaker award either two four-year full tuition waivers or eight one-year tuition waivers to any student who lives in their district to attend an Illinois public university.

District residency is the only restriction for scholarship recipients. It’s perfectly legal, for example, for a lawmaker to give a full ride to college to the son or daughter of a campaign contributor.

But state lawmakers still run afoul of the rules. The latest examples: The Better Government Association found that State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) has awarded legislative scholarships to ten students outside of her district since 1999. And State Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) lost her General Assembly seat possibly thanks to allegations that she gave scholarships to people outside her district.

Springfield observers pan legislative scholarships as a relic of an era where people assumed public office to dole out favors. The majority of the political establishment – most importantly Quinn and Speaker of the House Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) – support getting rid of the program.

“The culture is changing and it’s out of step,” says Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “The legislature needs all the credibility it can get at a time it’s going to ask people for more taxes and less services.”

Cullerton, though, stands by the program. The Senate President is open to legislation, Phelon says, that would reform the scholarships – such as a ban on the scholarships to campaign contributors. But the program still has some good points, Phelon says, that other scholarship programs – like the broke Monetary Assistance Program, or MAP – don’t have.

“[State lawmakers] have an opportunity to get a different perspective by interactions in their district,” Phelon says. “You are able to identify students that may fall through the cracks.”

Legislative scholarships cost Illinois universities $13.5 million annually, according to Illinois Issues. Twenty-six out of 59 Senators and 51 out of 118 Representatives did not participate in the program last year, according to data provided by the Illinois Board of Education.

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