Legislators propose various changes to Tulane scholarships program

Lawmakers are taking another look at a controversial program that allows state legislators to award Tulane University scholarships to students, including those connected to politicians and other insiders.

Seven bills that would make the program more transparent, restrict it or eliminate it entirely have been filed in advance of the legislative session that starts Monday. Although it is unclear what will emerge from the three-month session, some lawmakers said criticisms of the program — and issues raised in an investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV — likely mean some change will come.

“I think we’ll pass something,” Rep. Harold Ritchie said. “I think we’ll make some kind of changes so it’ll be a more open process; it’ll be better advertised by the Legislature and Tulane. I think it’ll open up the process a lot more.”

Every year, each of the 144 members of the Legislature is allowed to award a full Tulane scholarship to one student. Under a similar program, the mayor of New Orleans can award five scholarships.

Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, has been at the heart of recent debates on the scholarship program after it was revealed he had awarded a scholarship to the son of St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed. In the aftermath of that disclosure, Ritchie accepted an invitation to speak to a civics class in Franklinton to get ideas about overhauling the program. He said he structured his bills based on that conversation.

“Most of the students there liked the program, but they want to make sure that it’s open and everybody knows about it,” he said.

Ritchie’s bill would require that information about the scholarship recipients — including whether they are related to elected officials — be posted on legislators’ and Tulane’s websites. It also would prohibit awarding scholarships to close relatives of campaign contributors, and legislators would have to publish information on their websites informing residents that the scholarships are available.

A second bill, which Ritchie said he would push if his first one fails, focuses only on the prohibition on giving scholarships to those making campaign donations.

An analysis by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV showed about one in four legislators received money from relatives of students to whom they awarded the scholarships.

Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, also has filed a bill that would require information about applicants to be made public.

Transparency has become a central issue with the program, with critics saying a lack of knowledge about the scholarships among the general public means many of the recipients are insiders. In addition, attempts to get access to forms intended to provide information about the scholarship recipients have been stymied by legislative leaders.

The last major push to reform the program came in the 1990s after it became known that elected officials had been awarding scholarships to friends and family members. That legislation banned legislators from giving scholarships to their immediate family and required recipients to fill out forms disclosing whether they were related to an elected official.

The leaders of the state House and Senate have maintained the forms are not public records and have refused to release them. However, 10 lawmakers have provided their forms to The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.

A bill by Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, would keep the scholarship program in place but would add restrictions aimed at ensuring recipients are getting training sought by employers in the state and that they remain in Louisiana after graduation.

Under Hunter’s bill, HB 991, the scholarships could be granted only to students pursuing degrees that would make them eligible for jobs the Louisiana Workforce Commission considers to be in high demand.

After getting their degrees, those students also would be required to remain in Louisiana for the same number of years they received the scholarship. Should they leave the state before then, they would have to pay the tuition for the number of years they fall short. The repayment requirement would be waived for anyone who works for four years in the government or military or for a Louisiana-based company or nonprofit.

The scholarship program dates back 130 years to a deal the state struck with Tulane when it allowed the school to transition from a public institution to a private one. That agreement also gave Tulane an exemption from some taxes.

Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said it may be time to revisit that agreement and see whether the value the state gets from the scholarships is worth what it is giving up. University officials have estimated the tax breaks the school gets at about $3 million and the value of the scholarships at $6.4 million, though Claitor said he has asked the state Legislative Auditor’s Office and Legislative Fiscal Office to dig into the numbers.

“I don’t know if it’s a fair trade or not,” he said. “If it’s a fair trade, then I would like to see the program insulated from abuses.”

Claitor, who is running for the 6th Congressional District seat, has filed a bill that would eliminate the scholarships. He said he’ll move forward with that measure if it turns out the financial benefits are tilted too far in Tulane’s favor.

Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, also has filed a bill to eliminate the legislative scholarships. He said he filed HB 74 because “I just want to take it out of our hands. It’s a political tool. If Tulane wants to do it in each legislative district, that’s fine.”

Under his bill, students already getting scholarships would continue receiving them for three more years or until they receive a bachelor’s degree, whichever happens first.

Another Claitor bill, SB 1, would overhaul the program without eliminating it. In addition to requiring that information about the program be made public, the measure would bar elected officials and their relatives from receiving the scholarships and would give preference to the children of military personnel or other government workers killed on the job.

It also would require recipients of the award who receive scholarships for two or more years to perform twice the number of public service hours currently required of Tulane students.

“I don’t think I’m unreasonable asking for some level of service to Louisiana,” Claitor said.

Tulane University spokesman Michael Strecker said increasing public service hours for the scholarship recipients would be problematic.

“Tulane is the only major research university in the country that makes public service a core requirement of its undergraduate curriculum,” Strecker said. “Adding more public service requirements on top of this would unduly burden scholarship recipients.”

Strecker said the university has worked with other lawmakers, including Ritchie, on changes to the program and supports more transparency in the process. He noted that Tulane lists recipients of the scholarships on its website.

Claitor said the Tulane scholarships, while not as important as other issues likely to face the Legislature this session, likely will be a subject of some debate.

“In the grand scheme of things, the Tulane scholarship process isn’t the biggest thing this go-round,” he said. “But I think it’s something we ought to take the time to get right.”