Tuition waivers rotten to the end
Illinois' scandalous legislative tuition waiver program won't be over until it's finally over.
It's not surprising, but galling nonetheless, that Illinois legislators continued to abuse the legislative scholarship program even after they voted earlier this year to do away with it.
While legislators voted to end their political perk of awarding tuition waivers to favored students, the law containing the repeal allowed them one last round of handouts.
State records, buttressed by interesting revelations reported by the Chicago Tribune, show that 22 of 122 lawmakers made final tuition waiver awards, including top legislators like Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. Both Chicago Democrats were longtime backers of the program who finally voted to abolish it after decades of intermittent scandals made the tuition waiver award process politically radioactive.
As in past years, records show that recipients of tuition waivers included children of campaign donors and political supporters. The awards also included what may be the all-time greatest abuse of the requirement that a waiver recipient live in the district of the legislator making the award.
Records show that a resident of Texas, Jillian Duncan-Poole, received a tuition waiver from Chicago state Sen. Anazette Collins. The student, a registered voter in Texas, said she registered again to vote in Illinois, using her dormitory address at the University of Illinois-Chicago as proof of her residency in Collins' district.
The monkey business with tuition waivers is not limited to Chicago legislators.
State Rep. Scott Penny, a Democrat from Fairmont City near St. Louis, awarded four years of tuition waivers, rather than one-year waivers most legislators prefer, to the children of two individuals tied to the St. Clair County Democratic Party.
One recipient is the child of a village trustee in Fairmont City, where Penny was police chief before he accepted an appointment to fill a vacant House seat. Another recipient is the daughter of a connected Belleville Democrat, Michael Lundy. He is the current executive director of the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority. The Tribune reports that this is the second Lundy child to receive a four-year tuition waiver. Lundy told the Tribune that he didn't know a thing about it until Penny "surprised" him with a phone call informing him of the tuition waiver that will save his family thousands of dollars in higher education costs.
Tuition waivers were for years a valued perk of legislators who wanted to use them to reward campaign supporters and donors or for political horse-trading with fellow legislators. The program's only requirement was that recipients of the tuition waivers live in the districts of legislators making the awards, but that provision was routinely ignored.
Just as legislators ignored the residency requirement, prosecutors ignored legislators' violation of the law — until recently. Federal prosecutors in Chicago have an active investigation under way into fraud surrounding the tuition waiver program, so far targeting at least three current or former Chicago-area legislators — Collins, Rep. Dan Burke and former Rep. Robert Molaro.
It was, of course, predictable that some legislators would abuse the program for as long as they could. Many of them were openly resentful about being forced, in their view, to abolish the program. Their unsavory behavior provides more proof that putting an end to this unfortunate emblem of corruption was long past due.