Megan Nossel needed some extra cash for college a few years back, so she applied for a long list of scholarships.
She learned that her family, while not wealthy, did not qualify for much need-based aid. But there was one scholarship source that proved reliable: her aunt, Maryland Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier.
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger says need shouldn't be the only criterion.
Maryland Scholarship Recipients: Maryland's General Assembly is unique among state legislatures in giving taxpayer money to lawmakers for scholarships with few restrictions.
Nossel received two semesters' worth of taxpayer-funded scholarships from Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) -- $1,000 in state money doled out at the sole discretion of the senator's office.
A review of state records shows that Nossel, also a contributor to Klausmeier's reelection campaign, was hardly alone in receiving scholarships from a sympathetic lawmaker. Nor was she breaking the rules: Although state law recommends that the $11.3 million available each year for legislative scholarships go to those with demonstrated financial need, lawmakers are not required to follow that recommendation.
There is little to stop lawmakers from giving scholarships to campaign workers, relatives and friends as a way of compensating them for campaign work or ensuring constituent loyalty. During the more than 100 years the scholarship program has been in place -- a legislative perquisite unlike any other in the nation -- examples of nepotism and favoritism have often prompted critics to urge an end to the practice.
Now with Maryland college tuition spiraling and the pool of financial-aid money shrinking, a two-pronged effort is underway to end legislators' ability to grant scholarships with virtually no oversight. In his budget, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has proposed moving the money to a state commission that grants scholarships based on objective criteria. Two bills pending in the state Senate would do essentially the same.
"It's appalling that state funds can be doled out based on who knows who, not necessarily who has the best grades or who has the most financial need," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "If a student who pays 50 bucks to get into a fundraiser and say hello and [therefore] has a leg up, then the whole system is corrupt."
For years, legislators have jealously guarded the program, arguing that senators and delegates understand their constituencies better than a state bureaucracy and can fill urgent needs that a more objective system might overlook.
"We take the best, the brightest that are going into the field," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), a nurse who supports the legislative scholarships and gives her money to nursing students to help reverse a shortage in the field. "I do think it's important that financial need isn't the only" criterion, she said.
This year, three lawmakers submitted bills to end the program. Two have stalled in the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which Hollinger chairs, and the third was voted down in another committee. Hollinger would not say whether she would allow the bills to come to a vote before the session ends April 11.
Legislators receive a pool of money each year -- $158,000 for each senator and about $31,000 for each delegate -- that they can dole out essentially as they see fit. The state mandates that recipients must be Maryland residents and receive no more than $2,000 a semester from any one lawmaker.
Eight of Maryland's 47 senators and 21 of its 141 delegates regularly hand the money back to the state to determine how to disburse it. The rest decide for themselves who receives the awards, sometimes with input from committees.
A 1992 study by Common Cause/Maryland found that 1,200 of about 7,000 scholarships went to students with no demonstrated financial need. Although the Maryland Higher Education Commission would not provide detailed data on more recent scholarship recipients, the office released aggregate data showing that nearly 30 percent of legislative scholarships awarded last year went to students whose household incomes were more than $80,000 a year.
A Washington Post analysis of those scholarships showed several clear examples of campaign contributors receiving awards and dozens more probable cases of favoritism by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.