Tulane scholarship bill getting revamp

A Baton Rouge senator has revised his bill that would revamp the way Louisiana legislators award Tulane University scholarships.

The newly rewritten measure includes policy changes university officials recently announced and spells out those elected officials and their relatives who would not be eligible for the grants. The Louisiana Senate could take up the bill as early as Monday.

The program that allows Louisiana legislators to pick who receives the valuable scholarships has been the subject of much-publicized reports that the recipients often have been people with political connections.

A sheaf of bills, including one written by high school students as a project, were introduced to revamp the legislative scholarship programs. Most of those bills have gone nowhere in the current legislative session.

Now, with less than a month remaining in the session, one measure seems to be picking up traction. It is sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor, a Republican whose district includes the south Baton Rouge neighborhoods around LSU.

“I feel pretty good about it,” he said.

Under Claitor’s Senate Bill 1, the scholarships could not be given to any elected officials in Louisiana, from mayors and governors down to justices of the peace.

Immediate family members of legislators, statewide elected officials and members of Congress also would be excluded. Immediate family members of other elected officials could receive scholarships if they meet Tulane eligibility requirements.

Claitor’s revamped bill drops language that would have banned legislators from accepting campaign contributions from a scholarship recipient or a relative of a recipient. Lawmakers had complained that provision would have excluded hundreds of otherwise qualified students simply because a relative had contributed a few dollars at some fundraiser, as well as the family members of major donors.

All of that information is reported on campaign finance disclosure forms that elected officials are required to file with the Board of Ethics. “If someone wants to find that out, it’s available,” Claitor said.

He said the legislation is pretty much in alignment with new Tulane scholarship policies that university officials said are going into effect with the 2015-16 academic year. “We have been trying to work in the same direction,” he said.

The new Tulane policies incorporated in Claitor’s bill include broadening the pool of applicants for the scholarships and increasing transparency. All Louisiana students who have been accepted for admission to Tulane would be eligible, and the university would post on its website the names of the recipients, their hometowns and their relationship, if any, to an elected official.

Claitor said the policy changes need to be in state law, though, rather than just relying on university policy. “There’s policy and then there’s a change in administration, and then the next thing you know, it’s back to where we started,” he said.

James MacLaren, dean of undergraduate admissions at Tulane, said school officials are “agnostic” about Claitor’s bill, neither for nor against it. The school wants to maintain “flexibility” to make changes in the future, he said.

Each of Louisiana’s 144 legislators gets to award a scholarship to Tulane. The scholarships are valued at more than $46,000 annually.

“People need to be aware that (the program) exists and so take away that insider aspect of it,” said Claitor.

The scholarship program made the headlines in the mid-1990s when a scandal erupted over legislators using the scholarships to benefit themselves, their relatives and their friends. Rules were tightened to ban legislators from getting the award, and the list of scholarship recipients became public. However, a recent investigation by The Advocate and WWL-TV found many scholarships were being given to people with political connections, including relatives and friends of powerful politicians and the children of people who make large campaign contributions.

Under SB1, legislators could establish their own selection process or ask Tulane to award their scholarship through an open competition among qualified applicants in the legislator’s district, if possible. The scholarships would have to go to Louisiana residents. If no one in the legislator’s district is eligible, another Louisiana student could be selected, with financial need taken into account.

Tulane’s MacLaren said each legislator will receive a list of eligible students by district and ZIP code.

If the award is made through Tulane, the scholarship would be granted to the same student every year he or she remains in school, as long as the legislator is in office. “We don’t want to pull the plug out from under the kid’s deal,” Claitor said.

Claitor said he is going to have Tulane award the scholarship for his Senate district out of all the students in the district who qualify. “By applying to Tulane and being accepted, you are automatically in the pool,” said Claitor. “Then, they can consider financial need.”

He said information about the scholarship would be posted on the Legislature’s website with a link to Tulane’s website, where the application form and other information could be found.

Tulane would be required to publish annually the name and hometown of each scholarship recipient as well as any relationship with an elected official.

“It’s a modest advancement on where we are,” said Claitor. “This is, in my view, an easy codification of what we ought to be doing at this point.”