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Last gasp for legislative scholarships?

Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012 10:57 a.m. CST

(MCT) — State lawmakers are poised to finally ban an oft-abused free college tuition program that's drawn the scrutiny of federal prosecutors, a push that comes as a new scholarship program is being offered as a bargaining chip to win votes for a long-stalled proposal to build a Downstate power plant.

Those involved say the two issues are unrelated and not the result of the kind of political horse-trading that typically takes place in the General Assembly. But the timing has not gone unnoticed at the Capitol.

Headed for the chopping block is the century-old legislative scholarship program that allows lawmakers to dole out free tuition to state schools. For decades, the Tribune and other news outlets have documented abuses where legislators awarded the scholarships to family members, children of political donors and students living outside their districts.

The breakthrough to end the program surfaced Wednesday when Democratic Senate President John Cullerton, long opposed to banning the scholarships, got on board. Speaker Michael Madigan, whose House has approved several attempts over the years to end the scholarships, supports the Cullerton proposal.

But even as one scholarship program may be going down, a new one is being offered as a way to attract support from lawmakers for a multibillion-dollar power plant Tenaska wants to build near Taylorville in central Illinois. The Nebraska-based energy company has reached an agreement with African-American and Latino lawmakers to put $1.5 million a year toward scholarships that would be awarded to disadvantaged youth throughout Illinois, according Bart Ford, a Tenaska vice president.

Black lawmakers have opposed efforts to do away with the state legislative scholarship program, saying many deserving students from poor neighborhoods have used them to go to college. An influx of scholarship money from Tenaska could make up for the absence of free tuition at state universities.

For Cullerton, the decision to reverse course on the legislative scholarship ban comes as public pressure mounts. In recent years, the Senate president has stood by African-American and Latino Democrats who wanted to keep the program.

On Wednesday, Cullerton said there are "a lot of good reasons to keep it, but obviously it's become a distraction here with people, a small number of people, abusing it." Cullerton said lawmakers need to focus this session on major issues like reining in the huge costs of health care for the poor and pensions for public employees.

But the scholarship issue became a flash point in a March primary. Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago, lost to a candidate backed by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who maintained Collins improperly distributed several scholarships outside of her district.

The Collins case was the latest in a decades-long string of reports about abuses in the scholarship program as the free rides went to political insiders.

A 2009 Tribune analysis found that in the five prior years, lawmakers gave at least 140 scholarships to relatives of their campaign donors. Speaker Madigan, for example, gave $32,000 in the scholarships to a relative of a campaign contributor and circulator of petitions for the speaker's campaigns.

The Tribune also found that lawmakers gave at least 87 free rides to relatives of people with other political ties, including three children of city of Chicago employees charged with political corruption.

The scholarship program has just one requirement: The recipient must live in the legislator's district. But time and again, reporters have discovered that recipients lived elsewhere. The Tribune found that former Rep. Robert Molaro, for example, had given $94,000 worth of tuition waivers to four children of a friend and longtime political supporter. The children did not live in the district, according to their driver's licenses and documents submitted to their universities.

After the Tribune report, a federal grand jury subpoenaed documents related to the Molaro scholarships.

The Senate Executive Committee easily approved the scholarship ban on Wednesday afternoon.

The Tenaska plan, meanwhile, has been approved by the Senate and awaits a House vote before lawmakers adjourn May 31.

The idea of the Tenaska scholarship program first emerged in 2010 as the company began reaching out to legislators to test support for the controversial plan that involves building a new coal gasification plant to create electricity. The idea has a long lineup of opponents, including ComEd, which doesn't want to be required to buy the Tenaska-generated electricity for 30 years.

Given that Taylorville has a low number of minorities, the move to create a scholarship program was a "way to make the overall benefits more balanced," Ford said.

The coal plant plan initially failed in the Senate, but then Cullerton took over sponsorship and the Senate approved it.

Both Cullerton and Ford said the proposal to ban legislative scholarships is not connected to the emergence of the minority scholarships through Tenaska.

Tenaska's plan to offer minority scholarships "was certainly part of the discussion" when Tenaska's bill was approved in the Senate, Cullerton said.

"That was a totally separate issue that Tenaska was negotiating with people to get votes, and they were talking about, you know, some kind of minority scholarship," Cullerton said.

Ford maintained the offer of minority scholarships is a side agreement similar to efforts to coax support from environmentalists by agreeing to equip the power plant with a system that would use a third less water than is usually required.

Horse-trading, however, has a long history in Springfield. Last year's major income-tax increase was approved after Gov. Pat Quinn agreed to more money for education. In other years, blocs of lawmakers have withheld their votes from the state budget until they've gotten funding for priorities back in their districts. And a blockbuster deal to build a new home for the White Sox nearly a quarter-century ago was reached only after much behind-the-scenes dealing.

Against that backdrop, the timing of the legislative scholarship ban moving forward as the Tenaska deal is pending has raised questions with some lawmakers.

One Chicago Democrat, Rep. Ken Dunkin, said he previously supported Tenaska but now says he wants to take a closer look at the proposal before the House vote. Dunkin has long opposed getting rid of legislative scholarships because he said they are helpful to constituents who need assistance getting into college.

"I had a real issue with (Tenaska) and sort of the hiring of minorities or African-Americans and Latinos, etc., being a part of the process," Dunkin said. "I really believe in 'all tides should lift all boats' scenarios, and when you level the economic playing field, you deal with issues of crime, you deal with issues of schools, apathy, complacency," said Dunkin.

"Now, having said all of that, it's like every year $1 million. It will total about $30 million as it relates to scholarships," said Dunkin, whose district includes parts of the West and South sides. "That was one of the big reasons why it (previously) passed, and a lot of (African-American) caucus members supported it."

Tenaska's scholarship proposal has grown to $1.5 million a year and $45 million over 30 years.

Tribune reporters Monique Garcia, Jodi S. Cohen and Julie Wernau contributed.

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