By Andrew Thomason | Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD ― The political and legal fallout from Illinois’ legislative scholarships won’t soon go away, despite Gov. Pat Quinn signing to end the program Wednesday.
For a century, lawmakers have given tuition waivers to public universities. The program carries scant rules, one of which was for the recipient to live in the respective lawmaker’s district. Over time, cases of clout and corruption came to the fore, leading to calls to abolish the program.
“Legislative scholarships are a perfect example of a program created with the best of intentions and then sadly hijacked by a small band of craven lawmakers with the worst of intentions, awarding friends and neighbors and cronies and political allies rather than deserving students,” said Andy Shaw, president of the Better Government Association, a government watchdog group.
Controversy has surrounded the program, which cost more than $13 million last year.
But lawmakers continued to handout waivers.
At least 40 students got some form of a tuition waiver this summer semester, according to records obtained by Illinois Watchdog through an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request. At least four lawmakers continued to hand out waivers while the legislation ending the program was being passed through the General Assembly, according to state records.
State Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Chicago, gave out eight one-year tuition waivers this spring. Zalewski said he gave out waivers only
State Rep. Mike Zalewski
when students approached his office.
“We determined to make our decisions on these early, and my view was that if we could accommodate someone and get them off to college, it was in the best interests of the students to do so,” Zalewski said.
Still, Zalewski voted in favor of ending the program.
At least one lawmaker is being investigated for how she distributed tuition waivers. The U.S. Attorney’s office has started a criminal probe of Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago, according to the (Chicago) Sun-Times.
The federal government is seeking 11 years’ worth of documents relating to how Collins decided to allot the waivers and who got the waivers, according to the Sun-Times. The investigation follows reports by the Sun-Times earlier this year that seemed to suggest Collins gave waivers to students who didn’t live in her legislative district, which is against state law.
The Collins investigation is the second federal investigation regarding the program in less than a year. In August, the federal government began seeking information about former state Rep. Robert Molaro’s tuition waivers.
The legislation Quinn signed Wednesday doesn’t immediately stop lawmakers from giving tuition waivers. Legislators can distribute the waivers through September.
“The statue was passed during near the end of the school year and that has to be; you have to have a transition,” Quinn said in a Chicago news conference.