As thousands of needy students sit on waiting lists for financial aid, Maryland legislators are handing out nearly $11 million a year in taxpayer-funded college scholarships to almost anybody they want - including their colleagues' children.
Defenders of the legislative scholarship program, which has survived
repeated attempts to abolish it, say the absence of rules lets lawmakers grant
money to deserving students who might otherwise fall through bureaucratic
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 two
sons of Robert J. Antonetti Sr., the former Prince George's County elections
supervisor. Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, has been a top defender of the
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden gave $2,100 to Chanel Branch, daughter of a
fellow Baltimore Democrat, Del. Talmadge Branch.
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, gave $200 to the
son of then-Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Republican who shared her district. A
year later, Redmer, now the state insurance commissioner, gave $300 to
Klausmeier defended the awards last week. "My daughter applied, and she was
lucky 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 was
an astronomical amount of money."
Although the scholarships are sometimes relatively small, the nearly $11
million total amounts to 14 percent of the $76 million the state is spending
on 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-based
For legislators, the scholarships are a substantial source of patronage.
Maryland's 47 senators get $138,000 each to distribute annually in their
districts, and the 141 delegates each get about $24,000.
In one of the few rules governing the program, the scholarships are limited
to $200 to $2,000 a year and generally must be used at a two- or four-year
college 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 scholarships
are renewable, as long a student stays in good academic standing.
The only similar program in the country is in Illinois, where legislators
give out about $6 million in tuition waivers at state colleges. That program
has 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 deserving
students. But they argue that letting lawmakers distribute aid tilts the odds
toward people inside the political loop who know about the program and whose
children inevitably benefit from name recognition.
In effect, the program gives each legislator a taxpayer-funded way to gain
the favor of up to several hundred families in the legislator's district every
"It's wrong from every standpoint," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard
County Republican who has long opposed the program. "It's a way of giving
power to incumbents. It buys a lot of votes."
Miller, the Senate president, defended the scholarships, saying they allow
legislators to take individual circumstances into account in a way that the
formulas of other financial aid programs don't allow.
"There is a human side that faceless, nameless bureaucrats are incapable of
addressing," he said. "A computer could do their job."
Miller acknowledged that the program is susceptible to misuse, but he said
that is not sufficient reason to do away with it. "All in all, when you look
at the program, its value over the years outweighs ... any potentiality for
abuse," he said.