This Op-Ed also appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.
BGA’s policy arm is calling for an end to legislative scholarships because we believe they’re beyond repair or reform.
In recent months, the Better Government Association and various media outlets have chronicled the misuse and abuse of Illinois’ long-standing legislative scholarship program, a perk that allows lawmakers to give two college students tuition-free access to a state university each year.
Based on these investigations, the BGA’s policy arm is calling for an end to the scholarships because we believe they’re beyond repair or reform.
Meanwhile, the government watchdog that should be policing the program on behalf of the taxpayers claims he can’t do much because his hands are tied — a claim the BGA finds hard to believe.
On Wednesday, a bill to abolish the scholarship program passed with an overwhelming majority in the House. We urge the Senate to take quick action next, sending the bill to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk to be signed into law.
There is only one rule for handing out these scholarships: the recipients must live in the lawmaker’s district. But history shows that legislators repeatedly violate this obligation without fear of any legal consequences or sanctions from the General Assembly.
The most recent examples: The BGA reported that state Rep. Monique Davis gave scholarships to 10 recipients who live outside her district, and a Chicago Sun-Times report indicates that state Sen. Annazette Collins did the same thing for 10 geographically challenged students.
When it’s alleged that lawmakers fail to observe the law, it stands to reason that some sort of formal investigation should seek to determine guilt or innocence, and have the power to impose a sanction or consequence.
But for years, nothing has been done.
In fact, Thomas J. Homer, the Illinois Legislative Inspector General — the entity with the jurisdiction to investigate any alleged wrongdoing by members of the General Assembly — confirms that his office did not conduct a single investigation related to legislative scholarships until last fall.
Homer points to several factors that crimp his ability to investigate lawmakers, including a statute of limitations that prevents him from looking into allegations of wrongdoing that occurred more than a year before the complaint is filed, unless there’s a cover-up involved. And before 2010, Homer’s office was prohibited from initiating its own investigations and had to rely on complaints from third parties.
Efforts of the Legislative Inspector General to pursue violations of the law have proven to be woefully inadequate — or nonexistent — despite the firestorm of controversy surrounding it. Since 2010, there have been at least seven reports of legislative scholarship abuse, and not a single investigation with a suggested remedial action has come out of the Office of the Legislative Inspector General.
In principle, those who misused the program and ignored the law should be disciplined. Moreover, if this program had been more closely guarded, it arguably could have been a success instead of a glaring example of abuse of power.
But it’s too late for that type of thinking.
Gov. Quinn, who supports eliminating the scholarship program, recently called on the “Legislature and its leadership to move forward” and “put a bill on [his] desk.”
He even coined a phrase: “Don’t mend it. End it.”
It’s time to put that sentiment into action and scuttle this program.
Emily Miller is the BGA’s policy and government relations coordinator. She can be reached at (312) 821-9034 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.