Last spring, Illinois lawmakers killed the much-maligned General Assembly scholarship program, but not before 65 of them helped themselves to one more grand gesture of giving ... on the taxpayers' dime.
Just to be clear, state lawmakers do not pay for the public university scholarships they give out; the universities do.
None of the legislators still awarding scholarships this fall is from East Central Illinois — most of them quit participating in the century-old program after 2010 or 2011 — and only a few are from downstate.
It's a far cry from the most popular days of the program a decade or so ago when just about everyone — Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, downstater, Chicagoan or suburbanite — gave out the tuition waivers. Barack Obama, then a state senator, did. So did current State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who fancies himself a fiscal conservative. Same with Republican congressmen Aaron Schock of Peoria, Randy Hultgren of Winfield and Peter Roskam of Wheaton. Even Rick Winkel, now a professor at the University of Illinois, handed out scholarships.
But a series of scandals involving tuition waivers as political favors, as well as the state's and the universities' worsening financial conditions, finally made them radioactive enough.
But not entirely. Most lawmakers still giving the controversial scholarships are Chicago Democrats, not surprising since most of those who voted last spring to continue the program were Chicago Democrats. At least they were consistent.
But how about this: 22 lawmakers — 12 in the House and 10 in the Senate — voted to kill the waivers last spring but continued to give them out this fall. Among those 22 are Senate President John Cullerton; Speaker of the House Michael Madigan; the chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Edward Maloney; and Assistant House Republican Leader Angelo "Skip" Saviano of Elmwood Park.
Others who voted to end the scholarships — but who kept awarding them — were Sens. Maggie Crotty of Oak Forest, William Haine of Alton, Don Harmon of Oak Park, Mike Jacobs of East Moline, Steve Landek of Bridgeview, Terry Link of Waukegan, Antonio Munoz of Chicago and Ira Silverstein of Chicago, All are Democrats.
The maneuver was more bipartisan in the House. Democrats who voted to end the waivers — but gave one last batch of them — included Reps. Dan Beiser of Alton, Kelly Burke of Evergreen Park, Frank Mautino of Spring Valley and John D'Amico, Joe Lyons and Michael Zalewski, all of Chicago.
Republicans who said one thing and did another included Reps. Jerry Mitchell of Sterling, Joe Sosnowski of Rockford, Michael Tryon of Crystal Lake and Jim Watson of Jacksonville.
Tryon forcefully defended his last round of waivers awarded.
"As long as we had them I was going to grant them. I wasn't going to deny access to them to my constituents," he said. "And if we weren't going to address the issue by creating rules about how they were awarded, then we just needed to get rid of them."
Tryon said he used a committee of teachers and other community members to select his scholarship winners.
"I certainly wasn't going to tell residents of my district that I'm afraid to do this because of the controversy surrounding some that were improperly awarded," he said. "There were two ways to handle this: one was to pass laws about how you award them and the other was to get rid of them. There was no bill that was submitted to do them the right way. If there had been I would have voted for it."
And Tryon believes "the 45,000 tuition waivers that were given to college employees' kids" need to be examined too. A legislative task force recently was appointed to do that.
"If I'm an employee at the building and zoning department I don't get my building permits for half-price. I don't know why we give the kids of college employees tuition waivers for half the tuition. I think there's an issue in tuition waivers in general that needs to be talked about."
And if the 50 percent tuition waivers are allowed to continue, Tryon thinks they should be taxed as income.
"If I give my employee a car to drive that counts as income," he said. "Employees at universities are getting benefits that the average citizen isn't able to get. When it's a part of the condition of employment, I think that's income."
Meanwhile, he said he plans to introduce legislation requiring public universities to get legislative approval of tuition increases that are above the national average.
"The University of Illinois, it's becoming out of reach for most Illinoisans," Tryon said.
Finally, records from the State Board of Education show that 25 (of 59) senators gave tuition waivers this year. All except Haine, Jacobs and James Clayborne of Belleville are from northern Illinois.
Forty House members (of 118) gave the waivers this year, among them downstaters Mike Bost, R-Carbondale; David Leitch, R-Peoria; Scott Penny, D-Belleville; Raymond Poe, R-Springfield; Wayne Rosenthal, R-Forsyth; Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica; plus the aforementioned Beiser, Mautino and Mitchell.
Hays fundraisers. State Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, has scheduled two more fundraisers for his 103th House District race against Urbana Democrat Michael Langendorf.
Today, Hays is holding a reception from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Turtle Run Golf Club in Danville. Tickets are $60 per person or $100 per couple.
And on Oct. 16, Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, will appear at a Hays fundraiser from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Jupiters at the Crossing in Champaign. Tickets are $100 each or $150 per couple. Sponsorships also are available. Call 274-1906 for more information.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.