BATON ROUGE, La. -- A consensus emerged Tuesday that reforms are needed in a controversial 130-year-old program that allows each member of the Louisiana Legislature to award a full-ride Tulane scholarship each year, even though a move to scrap the program was withdrawn.
In light of a series of investigative stories by WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate that revealed many scholarships went to the children of connected insiders and campaign contributors, lawmakers began debating measures to reform the program.
Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, presented his two bills to a Senate committee Tuesday, saying that a recent analysis shows that Tulane no longer receives any tax benefits from the 19th Century deal. As a result, Claitor tabled his bill to eliminate the program entirely.
But Claitor pointed to many of the findings by WWL-TV and The Advocate as reasons to overhaul the program.
Claitor’s reform bill would prohibit the children of elected officials from receiving the perk, now valued at more $46,000 a year. The bill also would eliminate the children of campaign contributors.
While committee members said they agreed with Claitor in principle, some suggested that the proposed prohibitions might be too sweeping.
For example, state Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, expressed misgivings about excluding the children of small-town and rural officials such as constables and justice of the peace.
Tarver suggested a 5,000 population threshold on the elected official ban.
State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, suggested there should be a limit on campaign contributions rather than an outright prohibition.
“I would hate for a worthy student to be eliminated because his parents paid $100 to attend a fundraiser,” he said.
Claitor said he would return to the Senate and Governmental Affairs committee next Tuesday to discuss how sweeping his proposals should be, including which elected officials' kids should be ineligible and where to draw the line on campaign contributions.
"But it's hard to get past the public perception,” Claitor said. “For the greater good, we're going to eliminate some kids."
Stephanie Desselle, vice-president of policy for a Council for a Better Louisiana, said reform is necessary to turn around negative public opinion.
"It's more than just the public feeling that this involves well-connected people or even wealthy people. That seems to be what the media has focused on,” Desselle said. “For us it goes beyond this and it goes to conflict of interest."
Those views were echoed by Robert Scott of the Public Affairs Research Council. He said the program amounts to an insider’s game because it is so poorly advertised. He noted that the Legislature’s website “is devoid of information” about the scholarships.
"What we end up with is a system where we don't have as many applicants as we need. This is a poorly publicized program," Scott told the panel.
Scott submitted a PAR report on the program stating that program is “risky” and “uncertain” for students because lawmakers only award the scholarships for one year at a time.
“A legislator can decide to support a student one year and then drop that student in favor of another the next year,” the report states.
PAR also said the Legislature should consider taking the award process out of lawmakers’ hands completely to avoid favoritism and the vast differences in how different lawmakers make their selections.
“The selection process lacks consistency and strategy,” the report states. “Each legislator decides how and why to make an award, meaning that the scholarship program has 144 different selection methods.”
A similar reform bill on the House side will be taken up Wednesday. State Rep. Harold Ritchie, R-Bogalusa, is proposing that all children of elected officials be ineligible.
Ritchie drew criticism for awarding one of his scholarships to the son of well-paid St. Tammany District Attorney Walter Reed - who lives outside of his district - while not even notifying needy high schools inside his district.