Friday, August 12, 2011

Will Quinn develop enough backbone to fight to abolish tuition waiver perk

The “scary” aspect of Bob Molaro is that the former legislator from the Southwest Side isn’t the least bit surprising, or unusual.
MOLARO: No rules to follow?

Federal prosecutors are investigating Molaro’s conduct as a legislator with regards to the “legislative scholarship” program – which allowed him to give tuition waivers to students attending public universities at his own discretion.

ALL STATE LEGISLATORS have had this perk since 1905. The Chicago Sun-Times earlier this week reported that Molaro may have granted his waivers to students who lived outside of his district – as a way of rewarding their parents, who were prominent campaign contributors.

Prosecutors are trying to figure out if such behavior can be construed as a violation of federal law so that they could justify criminal charges against Molaro – who left the Legislature after 2008.

Because if they can’t get federal charges against him, there’s no way to really punish Molaro. Because the rules governing the tuition waiver perk are so lax that Molaro’s conduct is not the least bit wrong.

In fact, it’s not even original.

GOING THROUGHOUT THE years, one can find many cases where legislators used their tuition waiver perk to reward their friends. Or in some cases, to do a favor for another legislator – who then owes the original legislator some sort of massive favor as payback.

About the only “rule” concerning these tuition waivers is that half of them are to go to students attending the University of Illinois, and the other half to students attending a public college other than the University of Illinois (such as Illinois State, Chicago State or Governor’s State universities – just to name a few).

Now I must admit that many legislators these days make an effort to use the tuition waiver perk in a responsible manner. They create committees of educators in their districts to pick from applicants based on academic credentials.
QUINN: Lack of backbone?

They try to award their tuition waivers in ways that ensure people with a financial need wind up getting the waivers – which, since they cover the full cost of tuition – are a significant financial benefit.

BUT THERE ARE always going to be those legislators who either don’t see the point of granting their waivers in near anonymity or just see the whole point of having a perk as being something to benefit from.

That is why Gov. Pat Quinn is getting so anxious about the program. He’d like to be the governor who abolishes the legislative perk. It was just this week that he used his amendatory veto powers to alter a bill so that the perk would disappear.

The problem with that particular strategy is that any bill with an amendatory veto goes back to the General Assembly for consideration. Legislators – if they can get a 60 percent level of support – can have the bill become law in its original form.

I’d be willing to bet any amount of money that the Legislature won’t hesitate in the least to override Quinn’s amendatory veto. Come late October (when the veto session is scheduled to occur), they’re going to overrule Quinn’s desires.

I’M SURE QUINN realizes this. My guess is that what he really wants to do is provoke some sort of discussion on the merits of the tuition waiver perk, perhaps to the point where a full-fledged separate bill on the issue can be contemplated when the General Assembly reconvenes in the spring of 2012.

Which makes it sound way too similar to the casino expansion measure that now is pending, but likely will have more rounds of discussion before any kind of final action is taken.

But this is going to be a tough sell because the legislators who are inclined to use their perk in ways to benefit themselves politically are going to seriously believe they haven’t done anything wrong.

They will cite the fact that the rules governing the perk are lax, which means they didn’t violate them.

AND THE LEGISLATORS who go out of their way to keep a certain distance between themselves and the tuition waiver recipients (I know one legislator who this year told me the first time he ever heard of any of his recipients was at a reception he sponsored to honor them) are going to resent the fact that they should lose a political perk when they didn’t do anything wrong. Everybody thinks they’re innocent, and that they shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s sins – which I’m sure some don’t think are sins at all.

It means that Quinn’s chances of success ultimately are going to be determined on how much of his own muscle he’s willing to throw into this political fight, and how much respect the state Legislature is willing to give him.

Which means this could be where past political fights come back to haunt him, since this is a governor who is developing a reputation as someone who will back down from a political fight.

If that happens again, we’re stuck with our legislators having their tuition waiver perk to use and abuse to their satisfaction for a long, long time.


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