The Illinois Senate today overwhelmingly approved the elimination of a century-old legislative scholarship program that has come under federal investigation and long been abused by politicians who passed out the tuition waivers to relatives and the offspring of cronies and campaign contributors.
The vote is a milestone at the Capitol because for years the Senate had refused to endorse the ban under both Democratic and Republican control. The bill heads to the House, where Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, supports it.
The tide turned on the issue this week when Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, got behind the proposal. Cullerton acknowledged the majority of the General Assembly has favored abolishing the century-old program. He also faced rising pressure from Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, both of whom vigorously pushed to end the program.
Radogno’s entire Senate Republican caucus had decided to stop using the scholarships because of their history of abuse, and Quinn derided the tuition waivers as “political scholarship” that should be forbidden.
Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, argued the program had become a “dinosaur” that should be ended. But Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, attacked Quinn for backing the abolishment of the program, calling it a “travesty for the governor to take scholarships away.”
She maintained there had been only a small number of legislators whose “mishaps” reflected poorly on the program. She argued now is not the time to cut scholarships because lawmakers have already shortchanged education in elementary and high schools as well as for college assistance for needy students.
The Senate voted 43-5, with five lawmakers voting present.
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 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 example was the latest in a 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.