March 26, 2010

House committee votes to kill legislative scholarships

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

The House Appropriations Committee voted Friday to eliminate the legislature’s scholarship program, dedicating $11.5 million to need-based grants that would have otherwise been handed out to constituents by individual lawmakers.

The close vote in the committee came after a vigorous debate in which Republicans tried to completely cut the funds, as they had proposed in an alternative budget plan. But a majority of Democrats sought to throw the money into the larger statewide scholarship pot.

“We can’t afford to take another cut of this sort in a program that benefits our students,” said Del. John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, chair of the education subcommittee.

Bohanan noted that cutting the funding would represent an 11 percent cut in scholarships statewide.

But Del. Addie Eckardt, R-Middle Shore, and other Republicans on the committee said the cut and others like it would reduce ongoing spending gaps and the need for tax hikes in coming years.

Del. Sue Aumann, R-Baltimore County, said the GOP hoped the money would be put back into the general fund so state employees could avoid more furlough days and could start getting pay raises again.

“It was not our intent to eliminate the program,” said Del. Steve Schuh, R-Anne Arundel. “We didn’t want to blow up the legislative scholarships.” The committee turned down Schuh’s attempt to restore the program.

A chart accompanying the GOP budget plan offered in February showed the cut in legislative scholarships continuing for several years.

Some Democrats on the committee objected to the cut altogether.

“I would like to direct my own money,” said Del John Wood, D-St. Mary’s, saying he didn’t want some bureaucrat from Baltimore deciding whether students from his rural district would be getting money.

Del. Ted Sophocleus, D-Anne Arundel, said, “I have a lot of difficulty relinquishing my scholarships to people who don’t know the 32nd district.”

Del. Galen Claggett, D-Frederick, said there are problems with the scholarships.

“They have to be fair, but that is not always the case,” Clagett said.

Bohanan said Maryland was one of only four states where legislators directly distribute scholarships. About a third of the legislature lets the Maryland Higher Education Commission make the decisions, and other lawmakers use independent committees.

According to a legislative analysis, senatorial scholarships have existed in some form since 1924 and delegates have been able to give scholarships for over 50 years.

Each senator and delegate may award the equivalent of a four-year full scholarship at the University of Maryland College Park each year — about $34,500 each year for four years.

Senate Republican Leader Allan Kittleman and his late father, Robert Kittleman, a House minority leader and senator, have tried repeatedly to eliminate the direct scholarships. The Kittlemans argue that the scholarships are a form of unwholesome patronage subject to abuse. But legislation to kill the scholarships has not made it out of a Senate committee.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, who supported the move, noted that this is only the House action on the budget, implying that the Senate might not go along.