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Critics Seek To Kill Perk of Giving Ill. Lawmakers College Aid

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A 90-year-old perk given each year to Illinois state legislators--two four-year scholarships to state universities--may be on its last legs. Numerous reports this year have suggested that the awards are going to family members, children of party officials, and campaign contributors.

The privilege has traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Lawmakers who created the program also made sure they did not have to disclose its beneficiaries. And throughout its history, the scholarship program has raised eyebrows.

Sending one of their own children or grandchildren to college or through medical school at state expense has been a chief reason some people have campaigned for a seat in the legislature. And at least once a scholarship was designated for a lawmaker's dog, the story goes, to keep it available for later use.

But this year the program has faced its most serious opposition. Reporters in Illinois have uncovered the names of recipients and found that scholarships are often not awarded to needy students in legislative districts across the state, but instead are sometimes handed out in textbook examples of political patronage.

In the wake of the disclosures, which have led to an internal investigation at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, House members moved to abolish the practice as part of an ethics bill. Senate leaders said last week that while they are unlikely to kill the program--which they vigorously defend--they may still vote on a bill that would require lawmakers to reveal the names of recipients.

"We're getting closer and closer to elimination, but it's not going to happen this year," said Sen. Harry "Babe" Woodyard, a Republican who has sponsored bills to kill the program in each of the last three years.

"In my rural district, we need doctors," he said. "So I have given scholarships to students to attend medical school. But legislators should not be in this business."

Governor Joins Critics

The program began in 1905 as a way to raise the prestige of attending state universities and sweeten the prestige of the Illinois General Assembly. Lawmakers can award each year a four-year, free-ride scholarship to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and another four-year waiver to any other state school.

Many legislators divide the scholarships, turning them into eight one-year awards or sometimes 16 semester-by-semester grants. Some are used to waive tuition at law schools and other graduate programs.

State legislators in Louisiana and Maryland have a similar perquisite. Other states that once had such programs have slowly phased them out, in part because of problems like the ones that now threaten the program in Illinois. This month, Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, joined the critics, saying he would like to sign a bill ending the program.

The scholarships cost the state $4.2 million in fiscal 1994. The 1,904 scholarships that year made up the biggest chunk of the $9.7 million in scholarships that are rooted in state law.

Abuses 'Overstated'

Proponents of the program, led by Senate President James "Pate" Philip, contend that abuses have been overstated and that the program remains a worthy means of helping needy students.

"This is an opportunity to help thousands of Illinois students and their families--a worthwhile program that benefits students who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the financial-aid system," said Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Mr. Philip.

The provision to kill the program has stalled in the Senate rules committee and will likely stay there through the end of the session. Some observers said the strong vote that House lawmakers gave the plan--the ethics bill passed 85-30--came in part because the lawmakers knew that Senate leaders would keep the aid program from coming to a vote.

Ms. Schuh said Senate leaders were still considering a bill that would require disclosure of the names of scholarship recipients.

The identities of some recipients have created the problems that have lingered over this year's session since The News-Gazette newspaper in Champaign published the results of its investigation of the program.

The paper reported that legislators were awarding scholarships far outside their districts, apparently swapping scholarships with colleagues, granting tuition waivers to children of local party officials, and giving the children of political donors scholarships to expensive graduate programs.

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