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CHICAGO (AP) – Gov. Pat Quinn flexed his veto power Wednesday by rewriting legislation in a way that would end the long practice of letting Illinois legislators hand out scholarships to state universities.
Quinn’s amendatory veto now compels lawmakers to make a choice about whether to give up the perk as federal prosecutors investigate scholarships awarded by one of their former colleagues.
Because the scholarships are technically tuition waivers, state universities wind up eating the cost of educating the people who receive them. The waivers sometimes have gone to the children of legislators’ friends and political allies.
“You can’t put perfume on a skunk. This system has had too many problems for too many years and it’s time to abolish the legislative scholarship program,” Quinn said at a press conference in Chicago.
Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed records regarding scholarships that former state legislator Robert Molaro granted to a supporter’s children, according to copies of two subpoenas obtained by The Associated Press. He awarded them to the children of a campaign donor, although it’s not clear that they lived in his district, one of the requirements for receiving the scholarships.
Molaro did not return a call for comment Wednesday.
Quinn insisted Wednesday that taxpayer-funded scholarships should be based on financial need and merit.
“Education should not be a political thing where if you know some politician and you’re a family member of a donor or something like that,” Quinn said.
Under the program, General Assembly members have been allowed to give constituents free tuition each year that equals two, four-year scholarships at a state-funded university. A 2009 Associated Press analysis of the scholarships and state political contribution records found that between 2004 and 2009, at least 41 scholarships went to relatives of someone who gave money to the lawmaker awarding the waiver and at least 42 more went to relatives of other politically connected people, such as donors to other politicians, lobbyists, party officials and others.
Lawmakers have placed restrictions on legislative scholarships over the years, but have rejected Quinn’s previous calls for ending the program.
Quinn’s amendatory veto doesn’t force lawmakers to take action, but it does create a high-profile decision for them to make. They can do nothing and let the bill die, they can override Quinn’s changes and keep the scholarships or they can accept the veto and end the scholarship program.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown said Madigan has previously voted to abolish the program. Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said they would evaluate Quinn’s veto action “to make sure that it is compliant.”
Republican Senate leader Christine Radogno of Lemont praised Quinn’s action.
“I have long championed ending the legislative scholarship program which has become rife with abuse and a financial drain on our higher education system. … Perhaps with the governor’s intervention, the legislature will finally realize it is time for this program to end,” she said in a statement. Radogno’s office said she has opted out of the scholarship program, instead recommending other higher education assistance programs to families.
Quinn said in his veto message that lawmakers should voluntarily stop awarding scholarships until they are barred by law. He also noted that the state’s Monetary Award Program scholarship lacks money to cover everyone who qualifies.
“Because of my firm belief in the power of education to uplift and expand opportunity, I believe we must offer the opportunities that scholarships create to those that are the most deserving,” he said.