House panel kills legislative scholarship bill

An attempt to establish guidelines for the Tulane legislative scholarship program in state law ran into a dead end Wednesday.

The Louisiana House and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 6-1 to reject a state Senate-passed measure putting the scholarships off-limits to certain elected officials and their relatives and requiring transparency over the awarding of the $46,000-a-year scholarships controlled by legislators.

Committee Chairman Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville. said Tulane University has adopted guidelines that respond to problems that have cropped up. He added that state ethics law already bans legislators from awarding the scholarships to themselves or their relatives.

“I think it’s superfluous, quite frankly,” Burns, who has three degrees from Tulane, said of Senate Bill 1.

“It is incredibly important that we be transparent ...We have never addressed this until we had a problem,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, whose southeast Baton Rouge district includes part of the LSU campus and neighborhoods where most of the faculty, staff and students live.

Claitor said it is important to put the guidelines in state law because Tulane University’s administration can change them at any point.

A Tulane official said the school would prefer flexibility.

The 130-year-old Tulane University legislative scholarship program allows each of the Legislature’s 144 members to award an one-year scholarship each year.

The Louisiana Senate earlier overwhelmingly approved Claitor’s Senate Bill 1 which had been substantially revamped to pattern newly announced Tulane University policies.

The changes came following reports that some recipients of legislative scholarships have been related to the politically connected. There were complaints of lack of transparency.

Under SB1, scholarships could not be granted to any Louisiana elected officials. The ban would have extended to the immediate family members of legislators, statewide elected officials and congressmen. The immediate family members of other elected officials — from justices of the peace to mayors — could get scholarships, but that relationship would have to be disclosed.

The legislation also provided for the names of those receiving the scholarships and any relationship they have to an elected official to be posted by Tulane.

In addition, the measure would have allowed legislators to come up with their own selection process or punt to Tulane with a preference to eligible students in the legislator’s district.

Tulane announced recently that it would provide legislators, by district and zip code, the names of eligible scholarship recipients from whom they can choose. The university also said it would post the names of scholarship recipients, their hometowns and any relationship with an elected official.

A recent investigation by The Advocate and WWL-TV found many legislative scholarships to universities were being given to people with political connections, including relatives and friends of powerful politicians and the children of campaign donors.

Committee members said Tulane is already doing things called for in Claitor’s bill and plans to do more.

“Why do we need this legislation?” asked state Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur.

Claitor said there is no reason to not put the stipulations in state law.

“Frankly, I just don’t think we need to put something in the statute that’s already part of the policy,” said Burns.

Stephen Wright, Tulane’s executive director of state affairs, said there is not much difference between Claitor’s bill and the new Tulane policies. He said SB1, however, does not provide as much flexibilty as the university would like in the scholarship award process when legislators leave decisions to Tulane.

“We try to create as much flexibility as possible,” Wright said. “The question we have been putting forth is how much do you want to codify.”

“We legislate what’s the state tea cookie,” Claitor said. “This is important and it’s something the public is looking at us to address...I’m trying to help the public understand the process and folks don’t think it’s an insider game.”

State Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, suggested that the legislation would “tie Tulane’s hands.”

Voting FOR scholarship restrictions (1): state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington.

Voting AGAINST SB1 (6): State Reps. Burns, Danahay, Miller, Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales, and Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.