Updated 2 p.m. Thursday
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Senate has agreed to end the practice of letting lawmakers hand out free college educations to their constituents.
For years, the Senate had been the last roadblock in efforts to end the program. Thursday's Senate vote makes it likely the Illinois House and governor will quickly take the final steps in getting rid of the tuition waivers.
The measure passed 43-5, with five senators voting "present." All area senators voted to end the scholarships. The only "no" or "present" votes came from Chicago-area Democrats.
“Abolishing a political scholarship program is the right thing for deserving students who need financial assistance to attend college,” said Gov. Pat Quinn. “Illinois deserves to have a strong scholarship program that helps needy students go to college.
“As I have repeatedly advocated - scholarships - paid for by Illinois taxpayers- should be awarded only to those with merit who are in true financial need. As we continue to move forward to tackle reforming our pensions and Medicaid systems, this is an important bipartisan moment of progress.”
Lawmakers have sometimes awarded scholarships to the children of donors and political allies or even their own relatives. They have also violated the rule saying recipients must live in the legislator's district.
But supporters say the scholarships let them help promising students who otherwise would not be able to attend college.
On Wednesday, an Illinois Senate Committee voted 12-1 with one senator voting present to abolish the program following any scholarships that are awarded this fall.
The bill also calls for the appointment of a bipartisan task force to study the hundreds of milions of dollars in other scholarships and tuition waivers awarded by public colleges and universities in Illinois.
The scholarship program has been tarnished for the last two decades by various charges of abuse by lawmakers awarding the tuition waivers.
"This is a cautionary tale for all of us in power of the wrong that can be done in our positions," said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. "I mean this entire program was so thoroughly tainted by the actions of a few who didn't respect the office as they should have."
He said he was proud of the students he had helped in the past with the tuition waivers, "but the truth of the matter is ... understand the potential for harm you can do when you misstep and act inappropriately in this job because things like this happen when an entire program is tainted, and the good and the bad all go down with it."
But Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, called abolishing the program "a bad idea done because one individual has done something wrong that is literally stupid."
And Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, called eliminating the scholarships "a travesty."
In remarks to Emily Miller, a policy analyst for the Better Government Association that had investigated some of the abuses of the program, Lightford said, "We have 177 members in the General Assembly, but you guys keep narrowing in on one or two or three members who may have had mishaps for whatever reason. But what that does is penalize the students. It's not penalizing the legislators. It's penalizing the people in the community who have no promise of learning a higher education other than by earning a tuition waiver from a legislator."
The legislation, HB 3810 , now goes to the full Senate and then back to the House, where Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, who is sponsor of the measure, said it has the support of House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.
Gov. Pat Quinn has repeatedly called for an end to the scholarship program that began in 1909, according to Trotter.
Not only should the scholarships be abolished because of the abuses, said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, but because they are "a cost shift on other students in the state that pay their tuition to the state universities.
"I know we all want to see as many kids as possible get a good education, but the best thing we can do right now to make sure that happens is to get our state budget under control and begin to fund our state universities properly once again."
Central Illinois senators generally were supportive of the idea of eliminating the legislative scholarship program.
"It's progress," said Sen. Mike Frerichs. "In politics one doesn't always get what they want. This is not the bill I wanted to see passed, but we're getting a lot of what we wanted to see. This is big."
Frerichs was the sponsor of a bill that would have eliminated the scholarships this summer, and without the task force to study other tuition waivers.
He said he would vote for the revised legislation.
"Yes," the Champaign Democrat said. "This only calls for a task force. It doesn't do away with employee waivers. That's a fight we can have another day."
"I think the good news is that the public, the press and we Republicans have put enough pressure on the Democrats to finally do the right thing and do away with these things," said Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, who also was the GOP gubernatorial candidate in 2010. "We have precious few resources at the state level and we should continually re-examine how those scarce resources are used and whether or not they meet the best needs of the people of Illinois."
Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, was supportive but skeptical.
"The Democratic leaders have talked about this for a long time," Righter said. "There are Democratic senators, particularly in the city of Chicago, who view the General Assembly scholarship as almost a property right of their own, a goody that they're entitled to. And so that's why we've not been able to eliminate them in the past.
"But there's an opportunity here, because so much public pressure has mounted, that they may have to relent."
Righter said he was not concerned about the potential loss of 50 percent tuition waivers for some of his constituents. His Senate district includes the Eastern Illinois University campus.
"We'll see what they have to say. We ought to have that conversation. We shouldn't be afraid to have a conversation about these waivers," he said. "The people who think those waivers are appropriate and should stay in place should state their case."
Sen. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga, said he would support ending both programs.
"I think that just because you work at a university, you get a 50 percent tuition reduction, that's something that ought to be looked at. If it came up for a vote, I would probably vote to end it," said the veteran lawmaker.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.