Gov. Pat Quinn today signed into law a bill to kill the long-abused legislative scholarship program.
"Instead of scholarships going to those who truly deserve them and qualify for scholarships to go to college, too often the program was abused in a political way," Quinn said. "It wasn't what you know, but rather who you knew and how you maneuver to get a scholarship. And that really isn't the lesson the people of Illinois want the government to send with their tax money."
The ban comes as federal authorities are seeking the paperwork of a West Side lawmaker criticized for the way she handed out the perk.
Prosecutors last month subpoenaed the the records of Sen. Annazette Collins, who lost her Democratic primary in March amid questions of whether she improperly gave scholarships to students outside her district.
The federal grand jury subpoena, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune, requested documents and electronic files of the names of her scholarship recipients and their residences, communication with them and anyone associated or related to them. The request, sent before U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald left office, also inquired whether there had been any funds or gifts in connection with the scholarships.
"This is a grand jury matter, and therefore these proceedings are conducted in secret. The senator’s conduct does not constitute any violation of federal law as far as we can tell,” said Michael Monico, Collins’ attorney, late Tuesday.
Collins is among the latest in a long line of legislators over the decades who’ve come under fire for giving out the tuition waivers to friends, relatives and campaign contributors.
“Nobody believes in the power of education more than Gov. Quinn, and that’s precisely why he pushed to abolish political scholarships in Illinois,” said Brooke Anderson, Quinn’s spokeswoman, on Tuesday.
For years, some legislators had fought to keep the tuition perks. A breakthrough on the issue came this spring when Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, dropped his long-held opposition to abolishing the program. It’s an election year, and Cullerton was pushed by Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, whose own troops voluntarily had decided to no longer pass out the scholarships.
“I think our caucus — all of us refusing to give the scholarships — got it to a tipping point,” Radogno said. “It really demonstrated that you don’t have to have it to win re-election.”
Sponsoring Rep. Fred Crespo said getting the bill through both chambers was “pretty heavy lifting.” While the House has passed the ban multiple times and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has been in favor of eliminating the program for years, the Senate has always been a roadblock no matter if Republicans or Democrats were in charge.
“This program has been around for like, a hundred years,” said Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates. “Maybe back then it was good public policy… Right now I fail to see any public policy value in the way that this program existed.”
Federal authorities have subpoenaed the scholarship records of former Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago. That followed a Tribune report that Molaro had given $94,000 worth of tuition waivers to four children of a friend and longtime political supporter. The children did not live in Molaro's Southwest Side district, according to their driver's licenses and documents submitted to their universities. Recipients must live in the lawmaker's district.
Long an advocate of killing the program, Quinn’s signature will end the program for good on Sept. 1. Lawmakers will have until then to pass out a final round of tuition waivers. The law also calls for a review of all tuition waiver programs among state universities.
Crespo said the tuition waived for the legislative scholarships helped drive up tuition for the students who didn’t get state aid. He said he understood the desires of some lawmakers to help children in their districts, but too many lawmakers over the years failed to follow the basic rule to give out scholarships only to people in their own legislative districts.
That scholarship issue played a role in the primary loss of Collins, a Chicago Democrat criticized heavily by Secretary of State Jesse White, who contended she distributed numerous scholarships to students living outside of her district.