Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law today a bill to abolish the widely derided legislative scholarship program for which Illinois General Assembly members give college tuition waivers to people in their district. Quinn’s signing ceremony coincides with the Chicago Sun-Times’ revealing that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald started a criminal probe into State Sen. Annazette Collin’s (D-Chicago) use of the scholarships.
Quinn, who entered the governor’s mansion in 2009 as a reputed government reformer, noted in a statement that that “abolishing the century-old political scholarship program” was an “ethics reform goal since taking office.”
Lawmakers also used today’s ban to say they are dealing with the state’s penchant for political corruption. “Getting rid of legislative scholarships is an important step toward restoring confidence in Illinois government,” said Sen. Pat McGuire (D-Joilet) in a statement.
Legislative scholarships allowed each state lawmaker to annually award either two four-year full tuition waivers or eight one-year tuition waivers to any student who lives in their district as long as they attended an Illinois public university.
The program costs the state about $13 million a year, with 33 of 59 state senators and 67 of 118 state representatives participating last year, according to state Board of Education data.
But the public focus was on a few lawmakers like Collins and State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) who allegedly misused the program, according to reports by the Sun-Times and Better Government Association watchdog group.
Such allegations prompted the Illinois House and Senate to pass the ban in a landslide this spring, especially when Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who had long resisted the measure, became the bill's sponsor.
Cullerton said that he pushed to end scholarships so the General Assembly could move on to bigger problems like Medicaid and pension changes. The state made major Medicaid cuts, but delayed pension action.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald subpoenaed Collins' office June 1 for records regarding legislative scholarships the lawmaker doled out during her 11-year General Assembly tenure, according to the Sun-Times.
The paper reported before that Collins gave scholarships to five students who did not live in her district: Each student used Collins’ address as their own.
Besides Collins, federal prosecutors also subpoenaed legislative scholarship records last September from former State Rep. Robert Molaro, a Chicago Democrat who left office in 2009.
Regardless of what happens with the federal investigation, Collins has arguably already faced professional punishment. Challenger Patricia Van Pelt Watkins upset the West Side Chicago lawmaker in the March primary election. As PI reported, the tuition waiver controversy may have been the undoing of Collins' re-election bid.