The Illinois Senate voted today to ban the maligned legislative scholarship program, for which state lawmakers award scholarships to students in their district that attend an Illinois public university.
The bill passed 43-5, with five Senators voting ‘present’. The bill should just as easily clear the House and swiftly be signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn.
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), the most powerful person in Springfield to previously oppose a ban, turned around this week to actually sponsor the scholarship elimination measure.
Unlike previous bills, the Cullerton measure sets up a process to review other state tuition waivers. Also, the bill would not take effect until September – allowing lawmakers one more opportunity to dole out two, four-year full tuition waivers or eight one-year waivers.
Cullerton before sided with lawmakers who claimed the program needed reform, but was an unfair boogeyman of Springfield watchdogs. The Senate leader, though, decided this was not worth a fight.
“The majority of Senators would like to see the program abolished rather than reformed and it was clear that the program has become a major distraction in Springfield,” says Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon. “It would be better for us to put this issue behind us and focus on what matters, which is the budget, pensions, and Medicaid.”
State Sen. Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge), a bill sponsor prior to Cullerton, argued that the 35 Senate signatories to the bill – the majority of the Senate – convinced Cullerton to see passage as inevitable.
Kotowski said that he strongly supported Cullerton's change to the bill that establishes a 'waiver task force' to review all public university tuition waivers. There are $415 million in public university tuition waivers each year, of which legislative scholarships make up just $13.5 million. “I think everything needs to be evaluated for performance,” Kotowski says.
He downplayed postponing bill implementation until September, viewing it “as quite simply a process thing.”
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) emerged as a voice of opposition to the scholarship ban. “All the students and people who need help are being penalized for a few legislators mishaps,” Lightford says, referring to recent individual scandals including those of State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) and State Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago). Colins partly lost her primary race due to allegations of legislative scholarship improprieties.
Lightford called legislative scholarships “another mechanism” to enhance educational opportunities.
Thirty-three of 59 state senators and 67 of 118 state representatives participated in the program last year, according to data provided by the Illinois Board of Education.