Election-year politics unfortunately has thrust its ugly mug into resolution of the Tulane University scholarship controversy, where a dog-and-pony show bill only serves to distract from the real issue.
The untenable program, which allows each state legislator and the mayor of New Orleans times five, as currently constituted creates incentives for elected officials to use these awards, a full year scholarship to qualifying students not closely related to officials, as political plums. In exchange, Tulane gets tax breaks. It has become controversial again, following changes made two decades ago that eliminated awarding these to close relatives, because legislator reluctance to disclose these public records invites a suit to expose the illegality of withholding that information .
As previously noted, far easier to eliminate qualms about records and in matching deserving students to aid would be to eliminate the program entirely, having Tulane pay its taxes and constructing alternative means if scholarships are to be give out; for example, New Orleans and the state could create using their extra tax takes merit-based scholarships to be distributed, eliminating politics. But precisely because of politics and the ability to use awards as tools to build political support, explaining why many refuse to turn over records of these because of the obviousness of it all, politicians balk at the obvious reforms needed.
Enter state Sen. Dan Claitor, who voluntarily has been one of the most forthright legislators in revealing his choices that appear to use only merit criteria. His SB 1 would introduce far more regulation of the program, designed to exclude relatives on any elected official, to prohibit them and their families from donating to givers’ campaigns, to give preferential treatment to potential recipients whose families suffered loss in government service, to require more community service hours for those receiving them past two years, and to force greater transparency about selections.
In short, it would create an extensive, time-consuming, and overly-complicated system, especially when compared to just getting rid of it and folding it into existing Tulane-administered scholarship programs, which rather than making it something politically-motivated politicians look forward to transforms it into a burden few will want to deal with. Thus, it gives legislators a tailor-made reason to reject it, where they piously can argue it’s a bad, bureaucratic and costly solution even as they pay lip service to how reform is needed.
And that’s probably by design. Since it appears that the scholarships are considered tax breaks, the Constitution prohibits their disbanding by legislation in an even-numbered regular session year. Thus, legislators credibly can mouth words to the effect that it’s better to come back next year with something better than to pass this mess, and thereby make themselves look like champions for reform and transparency. But even if it somehow passed, then it creates a far more expensive and cumbersome solution than is required, in essence creating 145 new admissions officers for Tulane when the one it has will do, that will discourage much more sensible changes in the future with legislators declaring on this issue job done.
Most importantly from Claitor’s standpoint, it can make him look good also. If it fails he can argue he tried, and already has defended the bill by saying it was the best that could be done and he’d really like to end it all – deflecting from inquiry the question of why, if the problem was awards on the basis of politics occur because of the claimed secrecy of the selections, if he could not end the program then to mend it, at least in the short-run, by introducing a bill to force openness of information about selectees? Or, instead of promoting a bill that continues the program in a very inefficient form compared to just turning it over to nonpolitical administrators, simply waiting a year?
Because, between the time controversy was reignited about the program last fall and now, Claitor decided to run for Congress. Politically, offering up a far better solution next year is too late for credit-claiming for an election this fall. Or, offering up something much less convoluted than an alteration guaranteed to fail in a way that provides political cover for those deep-sixing it would garner enmity from his colleagues, some of whom can help you in your run for national office, by putting them on the spot where they either lose or have neutered their privilege or look bad by defending it. This way, it makes him appear he’s doing something good in a fashion that avoids embarrassing other legislators, and perhaps even gives them a chance to project the same positive image.
Understand that this bill represents an unserious response manufactured to cultivate a certain political image and to encourage political support for Claitor’s future electoral ambitions. Otherwise, the introduced bill would have moved to increased and genuine transparency this year as a way station to program transference to nonpolitical administration or its elimination next year, or there would be no bill at all this year.
If for some reason Claitor didn’t think all of these implications through and really wants to improve matters, he needs to withdraw the bill and reintroduce one mandating complete transparency, which would reduce drastically political machinations in awards. And there would be time next year for a bill ending it all (and in time for a reelection bid to his present post). If he fails to do so, he clearly signals this bill is more about his own political career than any realistic attempt to wring politics out of a politicized program.