May 3 2012
Vicki E. Alger
The century-old Illinois General Assembly Legislative Scholarship (GALS) allows state politicians to give students living in their districts scholarships to attend in-state public universities. Each lawmaker may award up to eight one-year scholarships, or two four-year scholarships, which cover the complete cost of attendance, valued at $60,000 to $80,000 each.
Family members are ineligible, but some lawmakers have given scholarships to students living outside their districts and children of campaign donors, intensifying efforts to end the program.
GALS has been “beset for decades by cronyism, insider dealings and sleight of hand,” according to an investigation by the Better Government Association and the Chicago Sun-Times. The investigation revealed lawmakers were awarding scholarships to children of friends and employees using false addresses to meet district residency requirements.
“Since 2010, there have been at least seven reports of legislative scholarship abuse,” explained Emily Miller, BGA policy and government relations coordinator, “and not a single investigation with a suggested remedial action has come out of the legislative inspector general’s office.”
Between 2003 and 2008, State Rep. Daniel Burke (D-Chicago) set aside four years of college tuition worth $70,000 for his former secretary’s daughter, whose scholarship paperwork listed a home belonging to the parents of Rep. Burke’s current Chicago-based secretary as her permanent residence. Over that same period, however, the daughter’s driver’s license listed a residence more than 200 miles away—the same address she used for her college admissions application.
The BGA also discovered that since 1999 Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) awarded scholarships to 10 students living outside of her district, as well as relatives of campaign donors and political employees.
“It sounds pretty difficult to believe,” Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) told the Sun-Times. “It just reinforces that we need to get rid of the program.” Gov. Pat Quinn, concurred, insisting, “Don’t mend it. End it.”
Support for killing GALS is increasing. More than 90 state legislators have pledged to opt-out of the program. The Illinois State Board of Education has also recommended eliminating the scholarship program.
In March, the House passed a bill authored by Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates) ending Illinois’ GALS. The House approved a similar measure in 2010, but the Senate defeated it.
GALS costs taxpayers $13.5 million annually. “Illinois colleges already offer scholarships based on merit and financial need,” explained Collin Hitt, Illinois Policy Institute Senior Director of Government Affairs. “When politicians hand out tuition waivers, universities have to cover those costs in part by cutting their own scholarship awards.”
Hitt noted that “there are too many documented abuses of the program to count.” Some lawmakers insist that GALS helps people. “But they never mention the tuition-paying students who are paying more—and perhaps missing out on meritorious scholarships—in order to sustain the program,” said Hitt.
Rep. Crespo’s bill joins two other bills in the Senate to eliminate GALS. With all three plans stuck in subcommittee, prospects for the program’s elimination are uncertain.
Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) has said he prefers GALS be reformed not abolished. A spokesperson for the Senate Democrats has also said it is unclear when—or if—the subcommittee will take up the bill.
“I’m completely cynical about whether or not they are going to try and pass this,” Sen. Radogno.
“It’s crystal clear that there is widespread support for this bill, and these are parliamentary maneuvers to keep it from coming up for a vote.” Of Illinois’ 59 senators, 38 have co-sponsored Rep. Crespo’s bill.
“There is no way to reform this program or there shouldn’t be any more attempts to try and do that,” Sen. Radogno said. “It’s just been constantly rife with abuse and misuse.”