- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2012

Maryland’s approved $35.4 billion budget for next year would eliminate a long-running program that allows lawmakers to give college scholarships to constituents, potentially ending a system critics have argued is highly susceptible to abuse.

The legislative scholarship program allows state senators to hand out $138,000 annually to students within their districts and allows delegates to dole out $38,000.

Few restrictions are placed on the awards, allowing lawmakers wide discretion in handing out money.

The $11.8 million program could be on the chopping block as part of the $512 million in cuts that went into effect last week when the General Assembly adjourned without approving several tax and revenue increases.

Supporters say the program, which has roots going back as far as 1924, gives lawmakers a chance to connect with residents and reward deserving students.

But opponents argue the money can too easily be used to pay political favors or appeal to voters and that it should be managed by nonelected officials or eliminated entirely.

“I think it’s more about exposure and publicity than it is giving something back to students,” said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican. “I think it curries favor with voters more than most things that we do.”

Maryland is one of just a handful of states that lets lawmakers give college financial aid directly to residents.

State senators are largely allowed to divide the money as they see fit among recipients, awarding anywhere from $400 to the full cost of tuition and fees at most state schools for as long as four years.

Senators are required to give the money to students who demonstrate financial need, but there is no such restriction on delegates.

Mr. Kittleman has sponsored several unsuccessful bills to end the program and has proposed reforms including a bill this year that would have required the state to list the names of recipients.

The Senate has typically shown the most resistance. In 2010, it killed a House-approved budget measure that would have let the Maryland Higher Education Commission award the money rather than lawmakers.

The program’s supporters have argued that lawmakers know their districts better than a centrally based state agency and can make more informed decisions.

Nonetheless, many legislators already try to keep their distance from the program, including Mr. Kittleman, who said he returns his $138,000 each year to the commission and asks that it give the money to deserving students in his district.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George’s Democrat, said the program gives incumbents an unfair advantage in election years and that he typically appoints 20 or 30 constituents to review applications and award the money without his input.

Mr. Pinsky said he suspects legislators have improperly used money in the past to help friends or gain voter support.

“I try not to even look at the applications so I’m not seen as favoring anybody,” he said.

The program is slated to end July 1 but could be restored if Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley orders a special session during which legislators would likely pass several tax and revenue increases to avoid all $512 million in cuts.

Mr. Pinsky said he would like to see the scholarship program reformed but that he doesn’t want it to go away.

He pointed out that other cuts in the budget could force tuition costs to increase, delivering an additional blow to students.

“Some kids could be hit with higher tuition and the loss of their scholarships,” he said. “So it could really jeopardize their ability to go to college.”

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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