RI Lawmakers Shell Out $1.9M in Controversial Legislative Grants

Thursday, August 15, 2013


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State lawmakers last year issued $1.9 million in legislative grants that go to charities and community organizations but are under fire by critics who say the grants are a thinly-veiled effort to buy votes and win influence at the Statehouse.

The largest grant, $150,000, went to Crossroads Rhode Island. The second highest, $100,000 was awarded to the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. But most grants are for a few thousand dollars or less, largely going to charitable causes like senior centers, soup kitchens, neighborhood associations, arts and music organizations, and other similar organizations, according to state records for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Click here to see the top 25 lawmakers who sponsored the most in grant funding.

Grants ‘influence votes’

Critics paint the program as wasteful spending that benefits the political establishment.

“Often used as a legislative hammer to influence votes, perhaps nothing symbolizes wasteful spending and insider politics in Rhode Island more than this self-indulgent legislative grant process,” said Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

“While state lawmakers get to hand-out big checks to nonprofits and local causes they support, all funded by our taxpayer dollars, many Rhode Islanders don’t have enough left over from our paychecks to do the same after taxes are taken out and considering the low wages we earn as a result of the state’s struggling economy,” he added.

The grants are requested by individual lawmakers and awarded by House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, according to Fox spokesman Larry Berman. The grants are awarded on a nonpartisan basis and determined based on the merits of applications from local nonprofits, Berman said.

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Among those lawmakers approved for the most in grant funds are Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, Senate Finance Chairman Daniel Da Ponte, former Senate Government Oversight Chairman Frank Ciccone, House Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, and House Judiciary Chair Edith Ajello. All received between $25,000 and $55,000 in grants.

Block: Grants are ‘dog treats’ for obedient lawmakers

Critics see a twofold problem with the grants: not only do they allow individual lawmakers to ingratiate themselves with voters, critics say, but also, since the grants are approved by the House and Senate leadership, they ensure the loyalty of rank-and-file members.

“Legislative grants are like dog treats. After shaking hands or rolling over, the legislator is given a tasty reward. Speaker Fox and Senate President Paiva Weed use these grants to achieve one thing: obedience. If you vote the way leadership wants, you receive grant money. If you oppose leadership, you are punished. In effect, taxpayer money is being used to buy votes in the General Assembly,” said Block, the founder of the Moderate Party and a candidate for Governor. “It’s an embarrassment to our state.”

“Rhode Island has serious fiscal problems—we can no longer tolerate wasteful and unaccountable spending. The legislative grant program should be significantly reformed or abolished entirely,” Block added.

Asked for comment, Berman did not specifically respond to Block. Instead, he issued this statement:

“Legislative grants provide badly needed assistance to seniors’ groups, youth sports programs, parent-teacher associations and many other civic and charitable organizations. In this challenging economy, non-profit agencies, such as Crossroads, which provides help to the homeless, and other community organizations are struggling and they need this state assistance more than ever. The General Assembly grants help fill the fundraising gaps and the lack of resources that are no longer available in municipal budgets.”

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The spokesman for Paiva Weed, Greg Pare, said he stood by comments he made in 2010, denying that any political favoritism was at work in the awarding of the grants. He said the grants were not related to party affiliation or incumbency. “These grants provide support for many community organizations that have a critical need for it, particularly during these difficult economic times,” Pare added.

State officials say they are committed to transparency

The grants, which number in the hundreds, are not voted on by the entire House. But Berman said Fox and Paiva Weed do not make decisions alone—he said they consult with individual members before making any final determinations. Both Berman and Pare said the General Assembly is committed to making the process more transparent.

In March 2012, Berman said Fox was committed to increasing transparency in the grants, especially after the scandal at the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island, which had received $7 million in grants.

Over the last year, Berman said annual random audits of the grants are now done by the Auditor General’s office.

Overall, he said the General Assembly has made significant strides towards making its activities more transparent. “In this past session alone, all House and Senate sessions and many committee meetings are now made available on the General Assembly Web site both live and on an archived basis for availability at any time. Also, a bill-tracking system has been implemented on the Assembly Web site, enabling the public to follow the progress of all bills that have been introduced,” Berman said.

But a taxpayer advocate says the legislative grant process remains a secretive one.

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“Legislative grants are a mystery to most taxpayers in RI yet they are donations that are made with taxpayers’ money,” said Lisa Blais, spokesperson for OSTPA, a taxpayer organization. “Many of the recipients of these grants provide great services for a variety of communities across our state but the ends don't always justify the means. Taxpayers have no clue what the parameters of the approval process is—if in fact there are really any parameters other than striking the right charitable or political chord with leadership in the House and Senate.”

She noted that Paiva Weed and Fox were among the largest benefactors of the grants. Fox sponsored $125,050 in grants. Paiva Weed put her support behind $68,000 in grants.

“House and Senate leadership should open this process up to the scrutiny of the public with a full analysis of how they make their decisions. The weakness of the current closed-door process is symbolic of the need to implement good government practices across the board. Legislative grants should be analyzed with the scrutiny that taxpayers deserve,” Blais said.

Senators defend grants

Several of the state senators who racked up the most in legislative grants defended the program yesterday.

State Senator Paul Jabour, D-Providence, sponsored $38,000 to a dozen organizations, ranging from the Classical High School Athletic Department and the West Broadway Neighborhood Association to RI for Community and Justice and Khaharlis, a nonprofit that advocates for development in Sierra Leone.

Jabour noted that the state Supreme Court has ruled that the legislature has the authority to make the grants as part of the budget. He said the process in awarding the grants is a meticulous one. Organizations must submit applications, request money for a legitimate purpose, and spell out in detail how they will spend the money. Recipients must also provide receipts for how they have spent the money, according to Sen. Walter Felag, D-Warren, another top recipient.

Jabour denied the process is not transparent, saying the records associated with the grants are public.

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The grants are not a vote-buying scheme, Jabour added. He challenged those who say they are to produce evidence. He said the grants are not an effort to curry favor with voters and constituents any more than the funding the General Assembly approves for individual state agencies and departments. “Are we buying votes from them?” Jabour said.

Jabour said the grants go to solid and worthwhile projects spearheaded by organizations that run on shoestring budgets. “These organizations are not looking for handouts. They’re looking to deliver a service,” Jabour said. “Trust me—we can justify the good cause for all of these grants.”

He noted that some of the grants go to arts and music programs for local students. In Providence public schools, Jabour said, arts and music programs are “all but non-existent.” Likewise, in his district, some of the grants are going to local fire and police departments for the purchase of apparatus, Felag said.

Other recipients of the $26,750 in grants Felag has sponsored include the Bristol Veterans Council, the George Hail Free Library, King Philip Little League, and the Warren Preservation Society.

“The grants go to worthwhile organizations,” Felag said. “I have no problems with the grants I have disbursed.”

Sen. William Walaska, D-Warwick, agreed with his colleagues’ comments that the money goes to good causes. “If I don’t take it for my constituents in District 30, the money will go elsewhere,” Walaska noted. “I will apply for them as long as they’re available.”

GOP lawmakers seek grants too

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Although it’s Democrats who have amassed the most grant money, some GOP lawmakers seem all too happy to seek them as well. One, Sen. David Bates, R-Barrington, sponsored $34,000 in grants, putting him among the top 25 lawmakers for the amount of grants they put in.

The list of Republican lawmakers who received grants for their districts includes two who have been outspoken opponents of the program: Sen. Nicholas Kettle of Coventry, and Rep. Doreen Costa, of North Kingstown. Previously Kettle has told GoLocalProv that he wants the program to be reformed, so that the entire House votes on the grants. Costa has said that she wants the grants eliminated.

Kettle was able to obtain 21 grants totaling $19,500 for his district. Asked to reconcile his advocacy of the grants with his past statements, Kettle said his position hadn’t changed: he still supports reform, but, in the meantime, he said he will continue to seek the grants. “I’m not going to punish my district and the worthy organizations it goes to,” Kettle said. “If I don’t take the grant money, it will get spent anyways.”

Costa secured just one grant for her district: $1,000 for the North Kingstown American Little League. But, like Kettle, Costa said her position on the grants has not changed. “I still think they should be eliminated,” she said. Short of complete elimination, she said she would push for a $5,000 cap on the total amount of grants that any legislator can receive for her district.

Costa said she went to bat for the grant because the kids in the Little League program asked for it. She recalled asking herself, “How am I going to say ‘no’ to the kids?”

“I did it,” she said. “I’m not embarrassed about it.”

Stephen Beale can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bealenews


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