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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers aren't giving up the Tulane University scholarships they get to dole out each year, but they might be willing to tweak who can receive them in hopes of easing criticism of the program.
Proposals to end legislative awarding of scholarships to the pricey private school already have been jettisoned for the regular session as lawmakers defended the program as valuable to needy students who otherwise wouldn't be able to attend Tulane.
Lawmakers now are considering adding more transparency — and limits — to the scholarships, in a bid to lessen public concerns that the awards can go to the politically connected and campaign contributors.
"There has been a perceived element and perhaps a real element of this program not being fair in the sense that if you were not an insider, if you did not have the information that this scholarship was out there, that somehow you weren't able to participate and compete," said Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, who's seeking changes to the program.
The program, which dates to the 1880s, lets each state lawmaker give one student annually a Tulane scholarship, an award worth up to nearly $47,000 a year. That's about $6.8 million in tuition money handed out annually by lawmakers.
The program was heavily criticized in the mid-1990s when it was disclosed that lawmakers had given out awards to children of other elected officials, donors and their own family. Criteria were tightened slightly, but new complaints have emerged that the system still favors political allies and fellow politicians.
Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, said the program shouldn't be scrapped.
"I don't think we should make kids ... suffer for stupid decisions that legislators make," he said.
Claitor scuttled his own bill to kill the scholarship program. Instead, he's moving ahead with a second measure that would prohibit lawmakers from giving scholarships to their relatives, relatives of other elected officials and relatives of people who donate to their campaigns.
But during the first debate over the proposal, members of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee said while they understand what Claitor wants to do, they worried his bill went too far.
"It certainly does eliminate some worthy kids who have an uncle or aunt who just happened to run for office," Claitor said.
"I think you're going to eliminate a lot of them," said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport.
Claitor delayed a committee vote in the hopes of reaching a compromise.
Meanwhile, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee killed a proposal by Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, I-Thibodaux, to do away with the legislative scholarships. But the panel advanced a proposal by Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, to add new restrictions to the program and to require more information published about it.
The bill would prohibit lawmakers from giving scholarships to their immediate family members and to students whose family members have contributed to the lawmaker's campaign for the current term of office.
Ritchie received criticism after he told New Orleans media outlets that he's given his scholarship for the last two years to a son of the St. Tammany Parish district attorney. So, he said he went to the 10th grade civics class at a high school in his area, Franklinton High School, to talk about the program and ask the students what they thought should be done.
"The students wanted to make sure that we have an open process and that everyone had a fair shot," he told the committee.
The measure goes next to the full House for debate.
Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 307 can be found at www.legis.la.gov
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