SPRINGFIELD – Drivers sporting University of Illinois or other special collegiate license plates in Illinois were told that the extra fees for those plates would go toward scholarships, but some of the money is actually being used on other state expenses.
The Governor's Office of Management and Budget recently took about $40,830 of the funds raised by specialty license plates for public and private universities and put it into the General Revenue Fund. An equal amount was taken in July. By the end of June 2006, a total of $163,320 will have been transferred out of the collegiate license plate funds.
Budget office spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the collegiate license plate funds had built up excess balances beyond what had been appropriated to pay for the scholarships, and a small portion of that was transferred into the state's main checking account to help with other expenses.
"This is one of hundreds of fund sweeps that have been conducted over the last three years," Carroll said. "This is by no means anything new, nor is it anything that will impact the funding of any scholarships, not by one penny."
But state Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said people who purchased those plates were told that the money would be used for scholarships, and that's what it should be used for. Transferring money out of those funds means fewer students can get help paying for college, he said.
"The governor's budgetary sleight of hand is having a real impact in people's lives," Rose said. "Every single one of these funds that is swept has a person behind it, and in this case it is students all over the state of Illinois."
Lou Liay, former head of the University of Illinois Alumni Association, not only has UI plates on his vehicle, he helped get the collegiate license plate program started. He was very upset to hear about the fund sweeps.
"I'm incensed because I helped get it started, and I wanted it to go to scholarships, not into his pocket," Liay said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "No matter what, it should go to scholarships."
Special collegiate plates are currently available for the following schools: Augustana College, Bradley University, Concordia University, DePaul University, Eastern Illinois University, Illinois State University, Loyola University Chicago, Malcolm X College, Millikin University, Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, Southern Illinois University, SIU Edwardsville, University of Illinois, UI Chicago, UI Springfield and Western Illinois University.
There are 10,582 collegiate plates registered in Illinois, and 6,192 of them represent the UI Urbana campus, said secretary of state spokesman Randy Nehrt.
"By purchasing these plates, you will be helping support scholarships for Illinois college students while displaying your pride for your favorite school or alma mater," Secretary of State Jesse White stated in the Collegiate License Plates brochure his office distributes. "I encourage you to become a partner in higher education by purchasing a set of collegiate plates."
The plates cost $40 extra to obtain and $25 extra to renew each year.
For each plate sold or renewed, $25 goes into either the State College and University Trust Fund (for public schools) or the University Grant Fund (for private colleges), Nehrt said.
Through the state budget process, money is then appropriated out of those funds to the colleges and universities, based on the number of specialty plates featuring that school. The UI uses the money it receives from the fund to provide $500 need-based scholarships to students, university spokesman Tom Hardy said.
Over the last few years, the amounts the governor and General Assembly appropriated to the various schools out of the State College and University Trust Fund and the University Grant Fund were less than what those funds contained, allowing a balance to build up.
"It's money that's going unspent year after year," Carroll said. "Like a majority of other special funds in state government, this fund has built up excess balances over several years, and we are using a small portion of those excess balances."
The General Assembly authorized the budget office to conduct the fund sweeps as part of the budget implementation legislation, she noted.
So far this fiscal year, the budget office has transferred $69,719.50 out of the State College and University Trust Fund, and the plan is to take an equal amount before the end of June 2006, for a grand total of $139,439, according to Carol Knowles, a spokeswoman for Comptroller Dan Hynes.
Another $11,940.50 has been swept from the University Grant Fund so far, and the plan is to transfer a total of $23,881 from that fund into the General Revenue Fund by the end of June 2006, Knowles said.
The $163,320 total that will have been transferred out of those funds by the end of the current budget year is enough to pay for more than 325 scholarships at $500 apiece.