Saturday, May 5, 2012

A fight ‘to the death’ for Illinois General Assembly’s tuition waiver perk?

It seems that the Illinois Legislature’s perk allowing its members to grant full tuition waivers to college students as it sees fit will go the way of 0.10 – a concept whose time to disappear finally came after years of seeing lawmakers fighting fiercely to preserve it.

The Statehouse remains as secretive a place -- despite the vote to do away with tuition waiver perks -- as it was in the days of this early 20th /Century postcard image.

I still recall back to 1997 when the General Assembly gave its approval for a measure reducing the legal standard for intoxication from a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 to 0.08.

THERE WERE POLITICAL people who fought for it for years, believing that it imposed too harsh of a standard and would wind up criminalizing people who had just stopped at a bar after work for a couple of drinks.

Yet year after year of continually coming up for a vote wore down the opposition, ultimately resulting in its approval. Outspoken critic (and then-Senate President) James “Pate” Philip even wound up backing it in the end – infamously telling reporter-types, “Sometimes, you have to do what the people want.”

Gee, thanks Pate!

Somehow, I can’t help but think the mood is the same these days in the Illinois state Senate, which this week gave final approval to a bill that will eliminate the perk that has existed for more than a century – allowing legislators to give tuition waivers that they insisted on calling “scholarships” even though no money actually changed hands (recipients receive letters telling the university officials they cannot charge that particular student any tuition).

THE STATE SENATE gave an overwhelming vote of support for the measure, although it seems there are some hard-liners who are feeling like they are being forced to go along with this.

In fact, I’m curious to see if those hard-liners will remain stubborn to the end when the concept comes up before the Illinois House of Representatives.

The House has passed the idea before. But now they are going to consider the Senate’s version of a waiver elimination bill. So that vote has yet to come up before Gov. Pat Quinn can show us whether he intends to fulfill his own promises to eliminate the waivers.

I suspect the Illinois House will ultimately vote to eliminate the perk – going along with the mood that doing so will be perceived as a vote for good government.

EVEN THOUGH I’D wonder if giving up this perk is a mere pitiance compared to some of the truly sordid things that have been done by legislators to enrich themselves while performing what they refer, sometimes mockingly, to as, “the people’s business.”

Perhaps letting up to eight people have a free year of tuition at a public university is one of the least corrupt things they do!

I’m being somewhat sarcastic here, but not really.

Because a part of me wonders if perhaps the Black Caucuses in the Senate and House are on to something when they argue against these bans by saying they will deprive some people of a chance to attend college.

BECAUSE THEY COME at a time when financial aid is less and less available – while the cost of college tuition continues to go up and up.

That is what current Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, is getting at when he says that eliminating the tuition waiver perks is something, “you wouldn’t think we’d take relish in eliminating… “

I write these sentences knowing of all the stories that have cropped up in recent years about legislators who gave the perks to college students who were related to people with political connections.

I also realize that the truly sad part of these stories is that they aren’t really new. Such antics have been taking place for decades.

IN LARGE PARK because this was a perk that was created at the very beginning of the 20th Century with next to no rules about how it was to be administered.

Which means that the legislators who gave out such questionable perks aren’t really in trouble. They can’t have broken a rule if there are next to no rules to be followed!

Does this mean that taking the time to create rules and ensure they would be followed would have been too difficult? That’s the impression I really get from the Illinois Legislature this week.

So I’m not about to question the motives of the five senators who this week voted “no,” or the five others who couldn’t bring themselves to vote “yes” and wound up punching the “present” button instead when the vote was cast.

I’M JUST CURIOUS to see how many more members of the Illinois House will express similar sentiments when this matter comes up for a final vote there sometime in the coming weeks.

Because it will pass. Gov. Pat Quinn will hold an elaborate ceremony to sign the bill into law. People will make grand pronouncements about how they have “cleaned up” Illinois government.

While all they really will have done is wiped away the stain caused by swatting one fly against the Statehouse wall while termites continue to eat away at the foundation of state government.

We’re far from having a “clean” government.


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