Stephanie Grace: A civics lesson in how the system works — or doesn’t

After state Rep. Harold Ritchie was called out on the front page of this newspaper for awarding his Tulane University legislative scholarship to the son of St. Tammany and Washington Parish DA Walter Reed, he caught some well-deserved flak. Why should a well-off, politically connected kid from a wealthier district get the lucrative perk, some of his constituents wondered, when someone from the Bogalusa Democrat’s own struggling district might have benefited from $47,000 worth of free annual tuition?

To his credit, Ritchie ate a little crow, accepted an invitation from a Franklinton civics teacher to discuss the actions and tried to turn his embarrassing incident into a lesson.

After a tough but productive discussion over the controversial program’s fairness, he took some of the students’ ideas to the capitol. Not all of them made it into Ritchie’s legislation — he left out a proposal to means-test the awards, for example — but his House Bill 307 included steps to make it easier for graduating seniors to find out about the scholarships and to block off at least some avenues for abuse.

Specifically, Ritchie’s bill required lawmakers to publicize the scholarships’ availability and rules on their websites, and mandated that Tulane post the names of recipients, their legislative sponsors and whether students are related to any elected official. The bill also called for each lawmaker to choose a student from his or her own district if a qualified applicant is available and from elsewhere in Louisiana if not. And it barred scholarships from going to sponsoring politicians’ campaign contributors.

That’s pretty common-sense stuff, particularly considering some of the egregious insider dealing the scholarship program has enabled.

Things were worse before it became widely known in the 1990s, when previously secret records showed that many politicians had treated their friends’, supporters’ and relatives’ kids — and, in some cases, even their own families, to free private college educations. Yet even since news scrutiny prompted a first round of reforms, questionable arrangements like the one between Ritchie and Reed have popped up.

Still, the Legislature has resisted calls to make the scholarship process more transparent (although some lawmakers have released records of their own showing whether recipients have powerful relatives). Lawmakers also have been reluctant to hand the power off to nonpoliticians (although some have done that voluntarily, too). Twenty years hence, the scholarship program remains too much of an insiders’ club.

That’s what the students in Franklinton seemed to think, anyway.

Legislators in Baton Rouge begged to differ. Mild as the proposed tweaks were, they were too much for the House, which voted down Ritchie’s bill last week, 53-44. A similar reform effort by Baton Rouge Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor is still pending on the Senate side; given the House vote, though, its ultimate prospects are uncertain.

Among the strongest voices against Ritchie’s bill was state Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, who insisted that voters who don’t like how legislators handle the scholarships can always show them the door.

“We’re held accountable by our constituents and by our conscience. That’s enough,” he said. “If we discipline ourselves, we don’t have to be disciplined by others.”

OK, let’s give Thompson the benefit of the doubt and say that, in theory, that’s the way things should work. Whether that’s how they do work is a whole other matter.

Given how under-radar the Tulane scholarships still are, only the worst offenders are likely to be held to account. Maybe the standard should be whether things function the way they should, not whether they’ve gotten so far off track that voters reach for their pitchforks.

As for those who voted “no” but didn’t speak up, one can only presume that they don’t want to give up the power to make the awards, and they don’t think their constituents care enough to punish them for sticking with the status quo.

And those students who met with Ritchie that day? Well, they got their lesson. They may not have seen how a bill becomes a law. But they definitely got a glimpse of how it doesn’t.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.