From Sunday's column in The News-Gazette ...
In a stunning reversal from the George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich years, there’s a war on spending in Springfield: pensions, Medicaid, prisons, salaries, legislative scholarships, even the 50 percent tuition waivers for longtime university employees, an employee benefit that cost $8.1 million last year.
Just for the sake of comparison, another waiver — the controversial General Assembly scholarships — cost the state universities $13.5 million last year. Those oft-abused scholarships might be eliminated finally as more lawmakers stop awarding them.
But if they’re going down, some legislators figure, tuition waivers for employees should go, too.
That was clearly the position of Reps. Luis Arroyo and Edward Acevedo, both Chicago Democrats, who led the charge in a House committee last week to eliminate the employee tuition waivers. If a witness testified for the waivers, they’d ask, “What’s your position on legislative scholarships?”
Acevedo badgered one witness, suggesting that “poor people can’t go to college because they’re going to take away legislative scholarships, but it’s OK for people who make six-figure salaries to get 50 percent off on their scholarships, is that what you are telling me?”
That’s not what the man was telling Acevedo, but it doesn’t matter.
“I don’t think these will go away on their own,” said Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign. “And I don’t think this university-provided perk should go. But I have a feeling that if legislative scholarships are killed, these will go, too.
“This is retribution for people who want to get rid of the General Assembly scholarships.”
Frerichs contends the universities, not the state, cover the cost of the tuition waivers as a part of their employee benefit structure, and they should be able to continue to do so.
Those in favor of the employee waivers said they benefit mostly lower-paid civil service employees at the universities, not well-heeled professors and administrators.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Carbondale, said many constituents in his district “chose to take jobs there knowing that seven years down the road they were going to have children hoping to go to college.”
Over the last 10 years the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus has issued a total of $25.5 million in 50 percent employee tuition waivers, or about 700 annually worth $2.5 million.
Michael Roux, a UI employee since 2005, hopes to be able to take advantage of the benefit. In a letter he sent to Arroyo, Roux said his son Alex, a senior at Champaign Central who overcame leukemia nine years ago, has been accepted at the UI.
“One thing that attracted me to the job was the 50 percent tuition waiver benefit,” said Roux, who lives in Savoy. “At that point in 2005, Alex was seven years from potentially starting college. I wanted to put our family in position financially to better afford college for Alex, if he didn’t relapse.
“One of the responsibilities when I accepted the university job was multi-day overnight travel four to six times a year. I have been away from family for various birthdays, graduations, child achievements and illnesses because of my work travel; an obligation that I accepted and have honored since October 2005. During that time I have been approached for employment by other organizations, which I dismissed, partially because of the future earned benefit of the 50 percent tuition waiver.”
Roux said the waiver is “a key reason that I sought out the job and have stayed in my current position. My son Alex has put himself in a good academic position to go to college. Just as he reaches his college goal, and I reach the end of the seven-year vesting period, the benefit could be removed. I request that you reverse course on your plan to remove the tuition waiver. The state of Illinois made a commitment to its workers and, by extension, the workers’ families. My son Alex has done his part. Please do yours.”