As thousands of needy students sit on waiting lists for financial aid,Maryland legislators are handing out nearly $11 million a year intaxpayer-funded college scholarships to almost anybody they want - includingtheir colleagues' children.
Defenders of the legislative scholarship program, which has survivedrepeated attempts to abolish it, say the absence of rules lets lawmakers grantmoney to deserving students who might otherwise fall through bureaucraticcracks.
But a review by The Sun shows that political considerations sometimesappear to play a role. Examples of scholarships given to families withpolitical ties since 2000 include:
Then-Sen. Perry Sfikas, a Baltimore Democrat, gave a scholarship worth$4,000 over four years to Wanda Irby, daughter-in-law of former state Sen.Nathan C. Irby Jr., now head of the Baltimore liquor board.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller gave a total of $2,600 to the twosons of Robert J. Antonetti Sr., the former Prince George's County electionssupervisor. Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, has been a top defender of thelegislative scholarships.
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden gave $2,100 to Chanel Branch, daughter of afellow Baltimore Democrat, Del. Talmadge Branch.
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, gave $200 to theson of then-Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Republican who shared her district. Ayear later, Redmer, now the state insurance commissioner, gave $300 toKlausmeier's daughter.
Klausmeier defended the awards last week. "My daughter applied, and she waslucky enough to get it," she said. "There was no, `Hey, just give it to me.'... Should she have been penalized because of who I was? It wasn't like it wasan astronomical amount of money."
Although the scholarships are sometimes relatively small, the nearly $11million total amounts to 14 percent of the $76 million the state is spendingon financial aid this year. With tuition at public colleges skyrocketing,about 5,000 students are on a waiting list for the state's main needs-basedaid program.
For legislators, the scholarships are a substantial source of patronage.Maryland's 47 senators get $138,000 each to distribute annually in theirdistricts, and the 141 delegates each get about $24,000.
In one of the few rules governing the program, the scholarships are limitedto $200 to $2,000 a year and generally must be used at a two- or four-yearcollege in Maryland, public or private.
The law encourages senators to consider need, but that is not defined.Students often get awards from more than one legislator, and the scholarshipsare renewable, as long a student stays in good academic standing.
The only similar program in the country is in Illinois, where legislatorsgive out about $6 million in tuition waivers at state colleges. That programhas also survived repeated attempts to do away with it.
Critics of Maryland's program, which dates back more than a century,acknowledge that some recipients from connected families might be deservingstudents. But they argue that letting lawmakers distribute aid tilts the oddstoward people inside the political loop who know about the program and whosechildren inevitably benefit from name recognition.
In effect, the program gives each legislator a taxpayer-funded way to gainthe favor of up to several hundred families in the legislator's district everyyear.
"It's wrong from every standpoint," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a HowardCounty Republican who has long opposed the program. "It's a way of givingpower to incumbents. It buys a lot of votes."
Miller, the Senate president, defended the scholarships, saying they allowlegislators to take individual circumstances into account in a way that theformulas of other financial aid programs don't allow.
"There is a human side that faceless, nameless bureaucrats are incapable ofaddressing," he said. "A computer could do their job."
Miller acknowledged that the program is susceptible to misuse, but he saidthat is not sufficient reason to do away with it. "All in all, when you lookat the program, its value over the years outweighs ... any potentiality forabuse," he said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he would be in favor of ending theprogram, particularly if legislators are giving awards to one another'schildren. "That stuff is over the edge. There's no reason for a legislator'schild to get money from another legislator," Busch said.
None of the program's critics suggests that questionable scholarships makeup more than a small minority of the roughly 11,000 given each year. But inscanning the list of scholarship awards, it is not hard to find names withpolitical connections.
After Jacob J. Mohorovic Jr. lost his House of Delegates seat in 2002, afellow Dundalk Democrat, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., gave Mohorovic's daughter a$200-a-semester scholarship.
"I didn't see anything wrong with it, just because he was a delegate in thepast," Stone said. "She's a good student, they had other kids in college, andI don't think she should be penalized for his having served in thelegislature."
Sen. Philip C. Jimeno gave a $400-a-year grant to Martha Kolodziejski,granddaughter of another Anne Arundel Democrat, former Del. Charles W."Stokes" Kolodziejski. "I don't think the fact that your grandfather served inthe legislature, and that I know him, should exclude that child," Jimeno said.
The Sun's review also found instances in which recipients' families werepolitical contributors.
From 2000 to 2003, Del. James E. Malone Jr. gave Jared Silberzahn, aSalisbury University student from Halethorpe, $3,200 in scholarships. In 2002,his parents contributed $220 to Malone's campaign.
Norma Silberzahn said the donations were to buy tickets to fund-raisersheld by Malone, whose father was a longtime American Legion friend of herhusband's. It shouldn't come as a surprise, she said, that Malone would knowsome of the students he gives scholarships to.
"It's not what you know, it's who you know. We know that. It's everywherein life," she said. "If you know someone to get your money, go ahead."
Malone, a Democrat from Arbutus, agreed that some familiarity wasunavoidable, but he said he had given Silberzahn money because he is a "sharpyoung man."
"There are some kids that have scholarships from me; I've known them andtheir family my whole life," he said. "I've lived in this little town 47years. There are people who apply for scholarships. Do I know them? Sure, Iknow them."
A bill to end the program passed the House of Delegates in 1997 but failedin the Senate, where Miller led the opposition. Since then, about three dozenlegislators uncomfortable with the program have turned over their allottedmoney to state financial aid administrators to distribute to needy students.
But there has been no renewed effort to eliminate the program. "You finallyrealize you're hitting your head against the wall and can't do it," Kittlemansaid. "I'd really like to get rid of it, but I'm tired of getting beat up onit."
Critics argue that the program makes even less sense in a time of risingtuition. Because the same amount of aid is given out by lawmakers in wealthydistricts as in poor ones, the program isn't sending money where it is mostneeded, said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
"It represents a bad kind of equality. It assumes that the socioeconomicmakeup of any district is the same as any other," Browning said. "It's aterrible way to get the money to where it ought to go."
To increase need-based aid, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is seeking to endthe state's $16 million in Hope Scholarships, which go to students basedmostly on merit. He plans to shift the money into the need-based EducationAccess grants but has offered no proposal to end the legislative scholarships.
The Education Access program has the flexibility to help even middle-classfamilies if they demonstrate need, said Andrea Hunt, the state's financial aiddirector. Shifting the legislative scholarship money into Education Accesswould reduce the size of the waiting list, she said.
Critics say it is not efficient to have lawmakers hand out scholarshipmoney. Overwhelmed by applications, many appoint panels of community membersto select winners, and Hunt's office spends long hours communicating withlegislators about their selections.
Experts on higher education financing also question claims that financialaid administrators can't judge individual students' need.
"This is why we've got this huge system, to make sure money gets to thepeople who need it most," said Thomas G. Mortenson, director of PostsecondaryEducation Opportunity, a think tank based in Iowa. "It's almost a guarantee ofinappropriate treatment that the definition of need is not specified in theMaryland program."
Legislators say they are aware of the potential for abuse, but they denyany attempts to reward their colleagues or associates.
Miller said he gave money to Antonetti's sons because they were both"exceptional students." The county's former elections chief, he said, has"never been a supporter of mine."
Redmer said he had no idea that his son had gotten a scholarship fromKlausmeier. Branch said he learned only after the fact that his daughter hadwon a scholarship from McFadden.
Sfikas said he didn't remember giving money to Irby's daughter-in-law butadded, "In this district, with a history of politically involved families, wejust had a philosophy that if we helped them, we helped them. ... If theylived in the district and needed help, God bless them, we helped them."
As they defended their award selections, several legislators said theywould not put up a fight if there were another push to end the program becausethey have grown weary of the paperwork and the pressure from constituents.
"If the state took it over, it wouldn't break my heart," Klausmeier said.
Sun staff writers David Nitkin, Michael Dresser and Larry Carsoncontributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, CT Now