Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn on Tuesday said the university-funded scholarships that state lawmakers hand out should be need-based and be part of discussions this fall at the Capitol about shortfalls in state financial aid funding.
Some longtime critics of the General Assembly scholarships also said the political atmosphere in the state right now might lend itself to rare change in the century-old perk.
An Associated Press review of state records of political donations and recipients of General Assembly scholarships found that between 2004 and 2009, at least 41 scholarships went to relatives of someone who gave money to the lawmaker awarding the perk. At least 42 more went to relatives of other people with political ties — donors to other politicians, lobbyists, party officials and others.
The state provides no money for the scholarships and requires only that students live in the lawmakers’ district. The scholarships costs state universities $12.5 million in 2008.
Quinn said Tuesday that he wants lawmakers to talk this fall — when he wants them to look for money to make up for cuts made this year in state financial aid programs — about how they award the scholarships and the money they cost universities.
“If part of that conversation involves how legislators use their scholarships, I think that might be a good time.
“If I had my way I think we ought to have a system where the money that is used for that is applied for by students based on need,” Quinn added.
A spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said he is reviewing how the General Assembly members hand out the scholarships.
“That’s something he’s willing to look at now to see if there is a better way to do that,” Rikeesha Phelon said.
AP’s review didn’t find any scholarships given by Cullerton to donors.
House leader Mike Madigan, another Democrat from Chicago, voted for legislation to end the scholarships in 2004, a bill that died in the house, and probably would again, spokesman Steve Brown said.
But the speaker doesn’t see any new need for action to end the scholarships or change how they’re awarded or financed, Brown said.
“With some obvious exceptions which could be questioned, it seems like most of them are awarded without any questions,” Brown said.
Madigan didn’t give any scholarships to his political donors’ relatives during the years reviewed by AP.
Some lawmakers defend the scholarships, saying that, while the rules about how they’re awarded could be standardized, the program itself is a good way to send deserving students to college.
“I’ve always looked on it as something that was available to me that can help a child,” said state Sen. William Haine, an Alton Republican who gave a scholarship in 2006 to the son of a local mayor, who later that year donated $850 to Haine.
Haine said the man had limited financial means to send his son, who graduated high in his high school class, to college.
“I’m just being a gutless person if I pass (the son) by” because his father is a small-town mayor, Haine said.
General Assembly scholarships have long been criticized, but legislation to change or end them has seldom gotten very far.
Some critics, though, say concerns created by the impeachment and indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the uproar over the influence of political connections on admissions at the University of Illinois might help create an opening for a governor or lawmakers who want to either do away with the scholarships or pay for them and set standards for how they’re awarded.
“Things do change,” albeit slowly, said Dr. Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “It’s going to take executive leadership or its going to take leadership from a legislative leader.
“They’re much more sympathetic to arguments these days about these things that are hurting the image and perception of Illinois politics,” he said.
Former University of Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry complains that, because the scholarships aren’t paid for by the state, other students cover the costs through tuition increases.
Ikenberry, who was president of the university from 1979 to 1995, said he occasionally approached lawmakers about ending the scholarship program.
“I think the prevailing view was then, ‘Yes, you may be right, but this system is so entrenched we can’t do anything about it,’” he said. “Now that the state is in a much more precarious financial position, the university is in a much more precarious financial position, it may be time to look at reforms that 15 or 20 years ago people were not ready to entertain.”
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