Legislators cling to one-of-a-kind scholarship perk

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANNAPOLIS -- While Maryland legislators are cutting almost everything else this session, the odds are good they'll hold onto one of their most cherished political perks -- the $6.4 million scholarship fund they dole out to constituents.

Despite attacks from critics, particularly in the Republican minority, the program is likely to survive as the only one of its kind in the nation -- one that gives each senator more than $100,000 a year to disburse with no oversight and few rules.

"Let's face it, if you've given out a scholarship to somebody, that person and that person's family will owe a certain debt to you," said Del. John S. Morgan, R-Howard, who received a senatorial scholarship in graduate school.

A critical study by Common Cause of Maryland showed that the average scholarship award between 1987 and 1990 was less than $600 per year -- not enough to make a big difference in a tuition bill but enough, the study concluded, to buy some political good will.

"It's really the state's money and it ought to be based on need and merit and not on the whims of a legislator," said Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, the only senator who turns over his share to the State Scholarship Administration to distribute according to need.

The program has been tarnished by a history of legislators giving scholarships to supporters, friends and an occasional relative.

Many lawmakers zealously defend the program as an effective way of reaching middle-class students in need who may not meet strict national financial aid requirements. Others say the days of handing out awards to political friends are long gone.

But a survey by The Sun found that old-fashioned politics lingers.

Sen. Frederick C. Malkus, the senior member of the legislature, has given awards worth several hundred dollars to at least three relatives in the past four years.

The latest was William B. Malkus, who received "a couple hundred dollars" from his cousin, the senator.

Mr. Malkus, a 45-year veteran of the General Assembly, makes no apologies. The student deserved and needed the money, he said.

"The fact that he was recognized, I think, has done something for the boy," Mr. Malkus, D-Dorchester, said of his latest beneficiary.

And when it comes to collecting scholarships, it always helps to know him, Senator Malkus said.

"In all fairness, there may be a couple hundred extra dollars given to someone for personal reasons with a connection," he said.

Mr. Malkus and the other 187 state lawmakers are free to give their scholarship awards to almost anyone they choose.

Maryland's 47 senators have more than $100,000 each at their disposal, while the 141 state delegates have about $9,000 each. In all, lawmakers will hand out 25 percent of Maryland's $24 million scholarship pool this year. The State Scholarship Administration, which awards grants based on need, gives out the rest.

To shield themselves from charges of political favoritism, some lawmakers set up committees to pick scholarship winners. But critics argue that it doesn't matter who receives the awards, just handing out the money is political gravy for lawmakers.

"Lawmakers can buy good will from people who aren't already supporters," said Common Cause Executive Director Phil Andrews.

Many well-to-do families wind up with legislative awards. For example, Sen. Leo E. Green, D-Prince George's, gave awards to 13 students with family incomes of more than $80,000 in 1989, Common Cause found. Senator Malkus gave a $500 award to a student whose family income topped $163,000.

Just four years ago, legislators were handing out only $3.2 million a year. But in 1988, with a healthier state budget, lawmakers voted to boost the size of the program. It will total more than $8 million by 1995.

Most senators defend their scholarships, which have a 120-year history.

"It's good because I'm hitting kids in a program that the state scholarship program isn't hitting," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County.

Legislators said they're likely to know more about a constituent's real financial situation than state scholarship officials. For example, a senator might know that a relative is sick or that a middle-class family has more than one child in college, things that wouldn't always show up on a student's financial aid information sheet.

But, in some cases, who the student knows is more important than what the student needs.

Michelle Hart, for example, was a fine candidate for a $1,500 annual scholarship, according to Sen. George W. Della Jr. He'd known her family for years. "She is truly a nice kid," said Mr. Della, D-Baltimore.

"More importantly," Mr. Della added, "she's helped me out in the past, done work in my campaign."

Mr. Della acknowledged that Michelle's volunteer work in his campaigns gave her an advantage in the scholarship process, which can be competitive.

Senator Bromwell said he receives roughly a thousand applications a year and has to turn down more than 90 percent. Still, he managed to give scholarships in recent years to the children of his campaign treasurer, and both his current and former campaign chairmen.

Mr. Bromwell acknowledged that the three children of his supporters edged equally qualified scholarship candidates.

But, Mr. Bromwell added, "If I didn't think they deserved the recognition, I never would have given them that scholarship."

Senator Bromwell awarded a $600 scholarship to Kolleen Kilduff, daughter of Gerard D. Kilduff, his former campaign chairman and now the chief liquor inspector in Baltimore County, a patronage job Mr. Bromwell helped him land. Mr. Bromwell later increased her annual award to $1,200.

"I've known her since she grew up," Mr. Bromwell said. "I'm not going to penalize her because I know her parents."

Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski said "with all things being equal," it can only help a family's chances for a scholarship if they have helped him politically.

"In all honesty, there is a tendency to give it to someone who helped you or who would help you," said Mr. Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore.

For example, Senator Miedusiewski gave a scholarship to Cindy Ratajczak, the daughter of Joseph R. Ratajczak, an East Baltimore political activist and a member of the Democratic Central Committee.

"She was a good student, and financially, that was absolutely justified," Mr. Miedusiewski said.

Cindy also had campaigned door-to-door for the senator.

"It's just human nature" for legislators to reap some political benefit from the scholarships, Mr. Miedusiewski said. "I couldn't imagine a person reading a comment otherwise and believing it."

The first reports of blatant abuse in the program surfaced in the early 1970s, more than 100 years after the program's genesis in 1868.

When he was a delegate, the late Sen. Joseph Bonvegna, D-Baltimore, gave a scholarship to his son.

"I think he needs the money," Mr. Bonvegna explained at the time.

Two other Baltimore senators gave awards to the children of their running mates, and former Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell 3rd awarded scholarships to two of his sisters-in-law and a cousin.

Even so, reform efforts always have failed.

This year, the General Assembly is considering several changes.

Del. Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard, has introduced a bill that would abolish legislative scholarships and give the money to the state scholarship board.

In the Senate, freshman John J. Hafer, R-Allegany, introduced the same bill last week, the first time in memory that anyone dared to even introduce an abolition measure in the upper chamber. Mr. Hafer said that because he was rejecting 90 percent of the people who applied, "it was more of a liability than a plus. It's politics, let's face it."

Another proposal would require legislators to establish a screening committee to recommend scholarship recipients.

Some legislators say they want to keep control of the scholarships because they don't trust the state scholarship bureaucracy to hand out the money any more fairly.

"I'm not hung up on whether we keep them or not," said Sen. James C. Simpson, D-Charles. "I only know the state scholarship board makes mistakes, too."

Reform attempts

With a new focus on the state legislative scholarships, lawmakers have filed several bills to reform or abolish the program outright. None has been voted on in committee:

* HB 166, by Del. Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard, and 22 co-sponsors, would abolish the legislative scholarship program and turn the money over to the state's general scholarship fund. SB 715 by Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Allegany, would do the same.

* HB 1257, by Del. Leon G. Billings, D-Montgomery, would require that legislative scholarships be awarded only to needy students and establish larger minimum and maximum awards.

* HB 843, by Dels. Joan B. Pitkin, D-Prince George's, and Marsha G. Perry, D-Anne Arundel, and SB 344 by Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, would require lawmakers to establish a committee to pick scholarship recipients.

* HB 4, by Delegate Kittleman would require the state to disclose for the first time the names of delegate scholarship recipients.

* HB 1120, by Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, and HB 1240 by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, would require students to repay their state scholarship grants.

* SJR 9, by Sen. Leo E. Green, D-Prince George's, calls for a study of the scholarship program, which could recommend its abolition.

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