Lawmakers will continue giving Tulane scholarships

For state lawmakers who are used to doling out Tulane University scholarships every year as gifts, the perk isn’t going anywhere. But the rules for handing out those gifts — the most valuable perk many legislators control — could change soon.

State Sen. Dan Claitor abandoned his plan Tuesday to put an end to the scholarship program when he shelved his Senate Bill 420, essentially killing that bill for the 2014 legislative session.

Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, also postponed for a week a vote on his Senate Bill 1, which would ban legislators from handing out scholarships to relatives, to other elected officials or to relatives of elected officials. The bill also would forbid lawmakers from accepting campaign contributions from scholarship recipients and their relatives.

The 130-year-old Tulane legislative scholarship program allows each of the Legislature’s 144 members to award a one-year scholarship to a lucky recipient each year. Today, each scholarship is worth more than $46,000, or roughly $7 million annually altogether. It’s a free program for taxpayers, with Tulane covering the cost. Some lawmakers tout it as a way to keep Louisiana’s most talented students in-state.

But it also has a history rooted in mutual back-scratching between Tulane and state officials. It started in the 1880s when the two sides struck a deal that turned Tulane from a public university into a private one.

As part of the bargain, Tulane was exempted from paying state and local sales taxes and certain property taxes. In return, the Legislature got to hand out scholarships.

The agreement has persisted for years, surviving a 1990s scandal when it emerged that many scholarships were being traded for political favors, and many legislators used them to send their own relatives to Tulane for free.

Claitor, who has largely been leading a one-man crusade against the Tulane scholarships and similar programs, said he’s trying to avoid a repeat of that era.

But after doing some digging, Claitor said he decided to scrap SB420 after he found that a number of other private universities in the state, including Loyola University and Centenary College, receive the same tax exemptions as Tulane.

That fact, he said, should quiet any talk that the program is a quid pro quo between Tulane and the Legislature. In fact, if one assumes Tulane would get the exemptions even without the scholarship program, the program costs Tulane roughly $7 million a year, Claitor said.

“If we eliminate these scholarships, we’d be giving a gift to Tulane,” Claitor said in explaining why he no longer wants to get rid of the program. “We’re getting the better end of the deal.”

While there was more support for Claitor’s other bill, it too came under some fire.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, for instance, explained he uses a committee to vet and choose the scholarships given in his name. Donohue, R-Mandeville, said he is usually unaware of the winner until the name is announced.

If SB1 were to pass, he said, the person chosen by his independent board could be disqualified if that student’s parents had given him a campaign contribution. “Don’t you think that’s a little rough?” Donahue asked Claitor.

While Claitor’s reforms took some knocks from fellow legislators, two prominent good-government groups spoke out in support of changes Tuesday, saying the program needs to be fixed.

The Public Affairs Research Council, a public policy research and lobbying group, released a report Tuesday urging lawmakers to think of the scholarship program as a state asset and not something legislators should benefit from.

Among other reforms, PAR recommended the program be tweaked so all Louisiana students accepted to the university are applicants for scholarships by default. While every Louisiana student admitted to Tulane is technically eligible for the full-ride, one-year scholarships, few apply. Last year, less than one-fifth of the 743 Louisianians who were admitted to Tulane put in for a legislative scholarship, PAR said.

In part, that’s because publicity about the program is poor, PAR said, adding the Legislature’s website “is devoid of information” about the scholarships.

And Council for a Better Louisiana Vice President Stephanie Desselle said her group backs Claitor’s bill because it would help restore public confidence in the scholarship program.

But a push from Claitor and a smattering of outside support might not be enough to get lawmakers to tweak one of their most valuable perks.

As debate wore on, senators began drifting out of the committee room, prompting Claitor to postpone a vote until next week.

Claitor later said he didn’t feel the legislation would have passed the committee Tuesday, given the makeup of the senators remaining in the room.

A better strategy, he decided, would be to tweak the bill over the next week. One possibility he floated would be to remove the restrictions placed on some elected officials, including school board members, district attorneys, sheriffs and others.

Advocate staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.