A proposal to take state legislators out of the business of awarding college scholarships enjoys the support of one-third of the Senate, with more than one-third undecided, a Sun survey found yesterday.
The poll showed that 15 of the 47 senators would vote to turn the $7 million legislative scholarship fund over to state scholarship officials. Another 17 were undecided or unwilling to commit themselves publicly. Despite that, the full Senate may not get to vote on the matter unless reformers can round up votes from at least four of the five undecided members of a Senate panel that must consider the issue first. Only two of the 11 members on the committee say they want to scrap the program.
"Senators are now weighing the political benefits and the political liabilities and concluding that it's a pretty close call," said Phil Andrews, executive director of the public interest advocacy group Common Cause, which wants to abolish the program. "When a majority of people conclude that the liabilities outweigh the benefits, then it will pass."
The House of Delegates put pressure on the Senate on Friday when it voted overwhelmingly to junk the scholarship program.
Sen. John W. Derr said he changed his mind this year after being bombarded by news reports about the awards being given to the politically connected and well-to-do.
"I've always been a staunch supporter," the Frederick County Republican said. "But the public perception is that it's being done for political benefit."
Fourteen senators said they oppose efforts to change the program, saying it provides an important safety net for many students. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has consistently supported the program, did not return repeated phone calls.
Opponents of abolition include five of the seven black senators, with the other two undecided. Some of them said they feared black students would be treated unfairly if legislators lost control of the awards.
In fact, figures show that black students do better in general state scholarship programs that they do under the senatorial program.
The legislative program -- the only one of its kind nationally -- allows senators and delegates to distribute scholarships to constituents in almost any way they see fit.
The 47 senators each have $120,000 a year to dole out, while the 141 delegates have $10,000 apiece.
The program accounts for one-fourth of the financial aid the state awards to college students. Nearly all the rest is distributed by the State Scholarship Administration under a formula based on financial need.
Several senators said public perception of the program had soured because of negative news reports.
On the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, which is considering the issue, only two of 11 members say they fully support abolishing the program. Four more are firmly opposed.
On the fence are five senators: Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat; Idamae Garrott, a Montgomery Democrat; American Joe Miedusiewski, a Baltimore Democrat; J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Wicomico Republican; and Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat. At least three of them have said in the past that they would consider abolishing the program if the right substitute could be found.
"I fully understand the perception of some people in the public, and I would be willing to make major changes to the program," said Ms. Hollinger.
But she took issue with reformers who call the program the last of the great legislative perks. "In 15 years, I have not had anybody hit the polls for me because I gave them a scholarship. I don't even know who they are," Ms. Hollinger said.
Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican who also sits on the committee weighing the bill, said, "I would vote to abolish it and let the State Scholarship Administration administer the program, for the most part because I don't think it's a proper function of a legislator's duty."
Five black senators, including committee Chairman Clarence W. Blount, said they feared that blacks would be hurt if the legislative scholarship program were eliminated.
In years past, they said, black students were not treated fairly by white senators and the Maryland scholarship agency.
"Before there were black senators, black kids didn't get any scholarships," said Senator Blount, a Baltimore Democrat.
"I just want to make sure before I give up what I have I won't look back one day and say, 'Dammit, my people got 'x' amount of dollars from scholarships then and now they're getting less. I would be a sad old man if that happened," he said.
State figures show that a larger share of general state scholarship money -- some 28 percent -- goes to blacks, compared to only 21 percent of the senatorial scholarships.
Some lawmakers say that turning the legislative scholarship program into a more need-based one would likely benefit more black students, who are generally less affluent.
Sen. Patricia R. Sher, a Montgomery Democrat, criticized Common Cause for its 1992 report on the number of scholarship recipients whose families earned at least $50,000 a year. The study said 1,200 of such students received $500,000 worth of senatorial aid in 1989 and 1990.
"I think the reporting job that Common Cause did was terrible," Ms. Sher said, adding that many families with an income above $50,000 still have problems paying college tuition.
Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell said he strongly opposed the efforts to abolish the program.
"My kids in my district wouldn't get the minimal scholarship aid if it wasn't for the senatorial scholarship program. It is not a political plum for Senator Bromwell. It is a program that helps the kids who fall between the cracks," the Baltimore County Democrat said.