Pass the real bill

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

This time, Gov. Pat Quinn did not swallow the bait.

Lawmakers sent him yet another bogus reform measure, this one pretending to set meaningful limits on the General Assembly's friends-and-family scholarship perk. On Tuesday, to his credit, he sent it back.

Quinn's veto leaves the oft-abused program — under which the offspring of countless campaign donors, legislative staffers, party loyalists and other cronies have gone to college for free — fully intact. That's still reprehensible.

But Quinn didn't counsel the wisdom of settling for half a loaf. The bill lawmakers sent him is nothing short of a fraud, and he called them on it. "This bill fails to adopt the fundamental reforms that are necessary to bring transparency, competition and fairness to the General Assembly scholarship program," he said in his veto message.

Given his penchant for putting things mildly, the governor didn't rant about legislative abuses. Instead he reminded lawmakers that they haven't found a way to fund the Monetary Award Program (MAP), which provides financial aid for the state's neediest students. They've slashed state spending on higher education and fallen hundreds of millions of dollars behind in promised funding.

We'll mention, since Quinn didn't, that the state doesn't fund the legislative scholarships, either. Last year, they cost the universities $12.5 million.

A law enacted in 1905 allows each of the state's 177 lawmakers to award the equivalent of two four-year tuition waivers each year. The only rule is that the recipient must live in the legislator's district.

Year after year after year after year, lawmakers have comped the children of their campaign workers, lobbyists, friends and neighbors — even their own kids, or each other's — into college. When those cozy relationships are exposed, lawmakers insist they're either coincidental or irrelevant. No way would they give someone a free ride as a favor or a payback. It's all about helping deserving kids who wouldn't otherwise get a college education.

That argument is as bankrupt as Illinois, and they know it. But that didn't stop lawmakers from trying to get the governor to sign off on a phony fix. The bill they passed would have made it illegal for lawmakers to award scholarships to close relatives of recent campaign contributors, period. No enforcement, no penalties, and no prohibitions on gifting friends, cronies, staffers or lawmakers' own relatives. As reform measures go, it was a big, fat zero.

As Quinn pointed out, there's a better bill still in play. A measure that would eliminate the scholarships entirely had already passed the House before Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, undercut it with his fake bill. Now that Quinn has vetoed that one, Cullerton should do his members a favor and take the brick off the real reform when they return to Springfield to pass a budget.

The choice is clear: They can hit the campaign trail boasting that they finally abolished this corrupt program.

Or they can explain to voters why they didn't.