SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois Senate approved legislation Thursday to eliminate legislators’ power to award college scholarships, virtually assuring the demise of the century-old program.

SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois Senate approved legislation Thursday to eliminate legislators’ power to award college scholarships, virtually assuring the demise of the century-old program.


While the House must still OK a Senate amendment to House Bill 3810, the House previously passed the measure overwhelmingly, and Gov. Pat Quinn, a longtime critic of the program, is expected to sign the legislation.


“I once was a proponent of legislative scholarships, but times change,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, who described the program as a dinosaur. “Times changed fiscally, times changed ethically.  This program now has the surveillance of the U.S. attorney’s office, and it’s time as an institution we let this perk, which was properly used for many years, go.”


The bill, which passed 43-5, is sponsored by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, who until this week had hoped to reform, not eliminate the scholarships. Cullerton told the Senate the program has become a distraction.


Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Chicago, argued that the opportunities the scholarships give students outweigh abuses committed by some lawmakers.


“This is a travesty for the governor to take scholarships away from people who really need them,” Lightford said.


The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Fred Crespo, R-Hoffman Estates, said he was initially concerned that the Senate’s changes might hurt the legislation's chances of being passed again in the House. He said his opinion changed when he saw 43 senators vote in favor of it. 


The Senate amendment creates a task force to study other tuition and fee waiver programs offered by public universities, such as those that benefit graduate students and children of military veterans.


Public universities spend about $360 million on tuition and fee waivers annually. The legislative tuition waiver program cost only $13 million.


Under the program, each member of the House and Senate can grant two four-year tuition waivers annually. A waiver can be used at any public university in the state. Some legislators break up the waivers, awarding two-year waivers to four students or one-year waivers to eight students.


Crespo said each waiver program should be judged on its own merits, but he hasn’t heard about other types of waivers being abused.


“To compare some of those discretionary tuition waivers with the legislative tuition waivers is like saying a donkey and elephant are the same animal because they have four legs and a tail,” Crespo said. “They are two different animals.”


Numerous news reports have highlighted how some lawmakers have given the waivers to political insiders and their relatives.


Some lawmakers also have violated the only rule the legislative scholarship program has: The recipient of the scholarship must live in the lawmaker’s district. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in March that Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago, gave scholarships to people outside her district five times between 2003 and 2009.


David Thomas can be reached at (217) 782-6292.