SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers are losing their century-old political perk of being able to hand out college scholarships just as federal prosecutors offer another reminder of the ethical concerns surrounding the program.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation Wednesday that ends the scholarships after one more round of awards for the upcoming academic year.
His approval came shortly after the news that prosecutors have subpoenaed records relating to awards by Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago.
The June 1 subpoena, signed by then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, requests scholarship applications, the names of recipients, all communications with them and information on “receipt of any funds or gifts in connection with the award.”
There is essentially one rule for the scholarship program: Legislators must give them to students from their districts.
But the Chicago Sun-Times reported in March that Collins gave to five students who listed her former home as their residence, even though some had driver’s licenses or voter registrations linked to addresses outside her district.
That’s just one example of possible misconduct. In the last year alone, six lawmakers have been linked to improper or questionable scholarships, which are technically tuition waivers, meaning universities must educate the students without being paid.
Lawmakers gave them to relatives of lobbyists, politicians and friends, or to people who appear to live outside their district.
Prosecutors subpoenaed documents on one former legislator’s scholarship decisions, and the State Board of Education notified federal authorities about possible violations by another lawmaker.
Each of the state’s 177 lawmakers is allowed to award two four-year waivers to public universities annually, with the schools absorbing the cost of educating the lucky students. Lawmakers generally break them up and award eight one-year waivers annually. In 2011, lawmakers doled out $13.5 million in tuition waivers.
Supporters say the waivers help promising students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to college. They note that Illinois is cutting financial aid at the same time tuition rates are climbing.
Opponents say the program helped politicians more than students.
“It was abused and corrupted,” said Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat who sponsored the bill ending the program.
Collins, through her attorney, has denied any misconduct.
During a Chicago bill-signing ceremony, Quinn had little to say about Collins except that any people who break the rules “have to pay the consequences.”
The Democratic governor said other scholarships, particularly the Monetary Award Program, can better help needy students. Quinn said he wants to see more money put into MAP scholarships.
The budget he signed last month cuts MAP funds by 4 percent, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. In fiscal 2011, the commission could afford to provide aid to only 42 percent of eligible applicants.