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Oh, the pain of giving up a perk

State Sen. Annazette R. Collins her campaign office  2413 W. MadisMarch 8. She lost Democratic primary March 20.

State Sen. Annazette R. Collins in her campaign office at 2413 W. Madison on March 8. She lost the Democratic primary on March 20. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 7, 2012 8:19AM

State Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago) was not pleased Thursday when I called.

Are you in Springfield?

“No,” she said.

Are you in Chicago?

“Yes,” she said, adding, “I don’t like talking to you all.”

At that, she hung up.

I was asking only because a major vote had just taken place in Springfield to abolish legislative scholarships, a century-old, favorite perk of lawmakers. But a perk that had fallen into ill repute after being abused by politicians who handed out free state tuition like candy to the children of clout-heavy pals and campaign donors.

Collins was a no-show on that vote. Then again, she has had a bad few months.

In March, Chicago Sun-Times Springfield bureau chief Dave McKinney broke the story of how the senator had doled out scholarships to five students who claimed Collins’ former house as their in-district residence though three of them lived far outside her district.

A couple of weeks later, Collins lost the primary election to Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, who had made the abuse of legislative scholarships a key campaign issue.

For many legislators, this was not a happy vote. But a necessary one. After all, the feds had come knocking, as the Sun-Times first reported last August, subpoenaing the legislative scholarship records of former state Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago).

Molaro, now a lobbyist, had no comment on that Thursday when I called. But $94,000 worth of his tuition waivers went to the children of a campaign contributor.

Other lawmakers whose scholarships have come under close scrutiny are Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero); Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), and Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island).

Gov. Pat Quinn maintained, “Abolishing a political scholarship program is the right thing.”

Senate President John Cullerton, who had hoped to reform the program rather than repeal it, was more reserved.

“There were relatively few cases of abuse,” he said by phone on Friday. Still, those abuses, coupled with an apparent federal probe, said Cullerton, “Was, in part, why we responded.”

But Cullerton, pointing a finger at the press gallery, questioned other state tuition waiver pro­grams, including for public policy graduate students from the University of Illinois at Springfield who spend a semester working as interns for news outlets such as the Sun-Times.

“It’s kind of ironic I’m being interviewed by a reporter about legislative scholarship abuse when the reporter is getting the scholarship themselves,” Cullerton said.

You could argue that’s sour grapes on Cullerton’s part because the only abuse uncovered has been connected to lawmakers, despite a range of other tuition waiver grant programs benefitting student athletes or veterans.

However, I take his point.

In a state that’s broke, everything, including the $414 million handed out in tuition scholarships of all kinds, deserves to be studied by the task force he’s impaneling.

Personally, I hope those U. of I.-Springfield reporter-grad students will always get the same shot at a tuition break that a basketball player receives.

And I have one other hope.

It’s that Sen. Collins realizes that, for the next seven months, while taxpayers are still on the hook for her salary, she ought to show up for the votes.

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