After years of bad publicity over cronyism and clout, the Illinois Legislature has voted to end a longstanding program that allowed each lawmaker to hand out taxpayer-funded college tuition waivers to students.
The 79-32 vote Monday was the second overwhelming tally in the state House in two months. The latest approval was necessary to endorse changes made in the state Senate, which broke a historic logjam over the issue earlier this month by reversing course and voting to abolish the perk.
The measure now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, who plans to sign it.
"Scholarships, paid for by Illinois taxpayers, should be awarded only to those with merit who are in true financial need," the Democrat said in a statement. "Abolishing this program is the right thing to do."
Under the program, each lawmaker was allowed to award two four-year waivers to public universities per year. Many spread the wealth by handing out eight one-year waivers.
For decades, though, waivers were shown to sometimes go to the politically connected rather than those most deserving. In the past year alone, a half-dozen lawmakers gave waivers to the relatives of lobbyists or friends, or violated the rules by awarding them to people who live outside their legislative districts. Some recipients have strangely listed addresses linked to their benefactors.
"People keep talking about reforming this thing," said the measure's sponsor, Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates. "We have only one rule for the tuition waiver and that is you have to reside in the district. We can't even do that!"
The House has approved abolishing the waivers several times, but the idea has stalled in the Senate, where President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, favored retaining them with restrictions, such as prohibiting awarding them to the children of campaign donors.
He did an abrupt about-face earlier this month, saying the matter was a distraction from more important items, and its abolishment sailed through the Senate the next day. It returned to the House for approval of Cullerton's additions. Those include delaying the program's end to September, giving lawmakers one more round, although many have voluntarily ended the practice.
And it orders a study of all higher-education tuition waiver programs _ $415 million dollars' worth last year _ to determine how well they work and whether they are worth it.
Even with overwhelming support to trash the waivers, some House members pleaded Monday to spare them.
"Does not every taxpayer in the state of Illinois benefit by that child's education?" asked Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago. "Because that child will have an education and get a job and possibly stay in Illinois."
Crespo was sympathetic, but suggested the program presents too many problems for the few students it helps.
"We want to help all the folks in our district," Crespo said. "To suggest you only have eight students in your district who need help is wrong. There are many, many more."
John O'Connor can be reached at https://twitter.com/apoconnor