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RI Lawmakers Shell Out $1.9M in Controversial Legislative Grants

Thursday, August 15, 2013


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.

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.”

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.

“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.

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

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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So grants are ‘dog treats’ for obedient lawmakers yet frequent critics of the leadership, and even some Republicans, get them.

Comment #1 by Edward Smith on 2013 08 15

This grant money is “peanuts” compared to the grant money that comes to Westerly, RI. For example; over “$2 million” in grants were given to a non-profit in here to develop a “1/4 acre lot”. How was the $2 million spent? Well, an existing building on the “1/4 acre lot” was torn down and then 6 new “affordable housing” apartments built, costing about $270/sq’. (The neighbors called it the “Manhattan Project” because the $270/sq’ price tag for the “six affordable apartments” is what it costs per sq’ to build “six luxury apartments” in Manhattan.)
This example shows exactly how “non-profits” are used as “fronts” for “professional politicians and greedy developers” (their campaign donors) while posing as “do-gooders”.

Comment #2 by Charles Marsh on 2013 08 15

This benevolent system of corruption is much like the system in Saudi Arabia where the tribal leaders gather and come before the king to kiss his hand and receive gifts of money.

Imagine, "$100,000 was awarded to the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence."

Man, I'll take that gig for $50,000 with this advice: "Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Be nice, don't hit, verbally abuse or kill anyone, okay?" Thank you very much, that'll be $50,000 please, a 50% savings off the regular price.

Comment #3 by Art West on 2013 08 15

The total grants handed out by Fox, Paiva-Weed, "House Leadership" and "Senate Leadership" is $604,750.00. Hmmmmmmmmmmm - No problem here, eh. 1.9 million dollars is a lot of taxpayers money handed out annually to local organizations, which should rely on local contributions and fundraisers for their operations.
This money plus another 8 million from the state's 8.2 Billion budget would be enough to provide the supplemental revenue needed by RITBA to maintain all four bridges to Aquidneck Island and eliminate the need for any tolling of the Sakonnet Bridge.
Any member of the general assembly who takes the position that 8 to 10 million dollars of an 8.2 Billion dollar annual budget cannot be identified for reallocation to the state’s high, if not highest, priority of infrastructure maintenance should not be serving in the general assembly and ought not be reelected.

Comment #4 by peter hewett on 2013 08 15

no surprises here...with the exception of Bates, the rest are tied in with the leadership on social and labor issues.

and of all these folks, what have they done for business and the economy of ri.......

its about jobs......

Comment #5 by john paycheck on 2013 08 15

I didn't see my Rep there getting any mention. Art Handy. You would have thought that he would have been able to get his fair share after introducing the Marriage Equality bill in the House. I would have imagined that that would have garnered great favor with Fox.

Comment #6 by Patrick Boyd on 2013 08 15

get rid of the grants

Comment #7 by dis gusted on 2013 08 15

why did crossroads get the most? $150,000? There are other more pressing social welfare organizations that could have used that money
Is this payback when engageRI and the head of Crossroads came out supporting raimondo and the pension plan back in 2011?
Raimondo is chair of Crossroads, isn't she? She can afford to give from her 2 million in her war chest to this organization...
The whole process of grants needs to be revamped or eliminated.

Comment #8 by dis gusted on 2013 08 15

I Like Art West's Saudi Arabia analogy. Unfortunately, this is what we have come down to; more people can be bribed, than are hurt. But it's kind of like the mother of a big family who gives and gives and gives. But she knows that on mother's day she will get a box of chocolates.

Comment #9 by joe pregiato on 2013 08 15

I don't see much wrong with legislative grant funding allocation. I do see something wrong with the story being completely based on statements made by Stenhouse and Block and Blais. Chopping Block would cut any and every social safety net in the state under the guise of "3% fraud equals a useless pariah of a program." The RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity is a notoriously conservative organization that lobbies at the State House against anything that would be considered for the social good rather than lining the pockets of the state's richest "job-creators." And notice how Lisa Blais was only identified by an acronym. OSTPA stands for Ocean State Tea Party Alliance. Do we really want to go down that road. Even they are too embarrassed to identify their origins. Let's cut grant funding for the state's busiest homeless shelter during a period of record homelessness? Really? And Sandy Hook Elementary school gets filled with bullets but studying the practice of non-violence does not merit a grant? Come on! Rhode Island benefits greatly from allocation of grants to deserving institutions and, while some legislators may focus a bit too close to personal relationships, they do represent the districts who elected them. Da Ponte only won his primary by 74 votes in 2012. He is wise to use his position to help his constituents. This is a smear of a story and I'm disappointed in the lack of compassion Rhode Islanders are willing to show for their fellow citizens.

Comment #10 by Guy Fawkes on 2013 08 15

Hey Guy; Tea Party satnds for TAXED ENOUGH ALREADY. But you must think we are not.

Comment #11 by joe pregiato on 2013 08 15

It's not a matter of compassion or merit, Guy, it's a matter of people in power taxing us and then doling out the proceeds to special interests -- who then vote for the politicians who provided the handout.

The decision to contribute charitably to a special interest should rest with the individual, not politicians who buy votes. Taxes should be used for the common good. Lower taxes enable ordinary people (who have to make it on their own without handouts) to give to the causes they personally believe in and merit donations.

Comment #12 by Art West on 2013 08 15

guy fawkes speaks as if there is an endless supply of money.....eventually the well will run dry and there is nothing for nobody. have you driven through providence lately, the schools are falling apart, the roads are like they have been bombed, there is waste and fraud in everything you look at.

and the problems were are procap, providence housing authority, providence loan fund---these were all social agencies or econ development for those in need and supposed to help people.

but they are there like the legislative grants--to hand out favors, jobs, contracts, etc.

Comment #13 by john paycheck on 2013 08 15

Sen. Jabour:
Q: Why in God's name are we spending RI taxpayer money to "advocate for development in Sierra Leone?
A: Because one of your constituents whom you want to curry favor with requested it.

No doubt, you stated that the process was transparent with a straight face!

You're record is quite clear, you've become a lap dog for the Senate leadership in order to reap rewards (sister receiving a much coveted Magistrates position) while you hold a no-show job for the City of Providence! Seems I recall you also had an issue several years back receiving a low interest mortgage from what is now RI Housing even thought you didn't qualify. Yup, a real profile in ethics.

Comment #14 by Walter Miller on 2013 08 15

just like Mattiello has become the lap dog for Fox...and why is Maria Theresa Paiva Weed on this list twice?
This criminal behavior rewards the good doobies who do whatever the leadership says?
The c auses these lawmakers pick and choose are self serving...I notice that the majority of the causes Rep mattiello got money for are within a 20 mile radius of his house! from the grange to orchard school....so by donating $$ to the schools, this brings him teacher votes...when will l you people wake up. The grants and the way they are giving out are wrong. I bet foir every cause these people got money for, there are 10 more that could have used the money better...
Let's call a spade a spade...These grants are for votes and favors and nothing more....
Crossroads has people behind it donating $$$.They have ceo's of companies donating time, money having fundraisers, etc...But the people of Assumption parishfor example, or the Genesis Center have no such organization. Why not give it to them? Or to the many other smaller charities? This is so wrong....There should be a better way to distribute money so that politicians don;t get votes and favors out of it....Again the greed of these 25 lawmakers are showing...They should have all said let's have a better, more equitable system for the neediest organizations.This will never happen in RI. This is why we need term limits by referendum..Get these suckers and career politicians out of there...like Fox in there for 20 years and yet he was a part of the 38 Studios debacle and with no consequence...Again when will the people wake up????

Comment #15 by dis gusted on 2013 08 15

How about this for an idea? Let's cut taxes 10% and let's cut spending 15%—department by department. I bet it could be done and what a message it would send!

Comment #16 by James Berling on 2013 08 15

you forgot to add:
cut down on the Gen ASSembly politicians 20%!

Comment #17 by dis gusted on 2013 08 15

That would be just fine with me.

And if it appeared as a ballot question I bet it would pass.

Comment #18 by James Berling on 2013 08 15

Basically these grants are an attempt to hook those that don't have state or municipal jobs to be thankful for.

Comment #19 by David Beagle on 2013 08 15

Republicans prove themselves hypocrites... Rep. Costa is a good rep and a great fundraiser... she should have just helped the Little League in NK raise the money vs. caving in and accepting the grant money; Kettle is a phoney... this Ron Paul self-proclaimed libertarian took tons of pork for his District... what a sellout. Both parties are guilty as hell.

Comment #20 by Maria Gonsalves on 2013 08 15

Republicans prove themselves hypocrites... Rep. Costa is a good rep and a great fundraiser... she should have just helped the Little League in NK raise the money vs. caving in and accepting the grant money; Kettle is a phoney... this Ron Paul self-proclaimed libertarian took tons of pork for his District...

Comment #21 by Maria Gonsalves on 2013 08 15

Just checked and a first look reveals that it appears Republicans Newberry, Morgan, Trillo, Chippendale, Hodgson, Ottiano, and Aligere didn't take any grant money... so high five to these folks.

Comment #22 by Maria Gonsalves on 2013 08 15

didn't take or wasn't given any?
Maybe they asked and were denied...

Comment #23 by dis gusted on 2013 08 15

Look these people are incompetent in the GA to start with, they are not doing any good for the state or locals by their inability to legislate any plans that benefit the state, grow the state, develop the state, get to the fiscal problems, waste and fraud. And more.....

Comment #24 by Gary Arnold on 2013 08 16

Our comments mean nothing here...just a place to vent...there needs to be protesting at these people's houses or at the state house every time they meet for how they are screwing the very people they represent...We need to get them out...We need to crusade for term limits by referendum to get them out of office. We cannot depend on fellow conmstituents to do it because the self serving politicians would have been out long ago. There are many people who vote them in for self gain and political favors. So we need not to depend on human nature but on a law that will push them out...

Comment #25 by dis gusted on 2013 08 16

The Government, State or Federal, should NOT be giving our money away. Reduce our taxes and let us, the Citizen, decide the worthy causes.

Comment #26 by Wuggly Ump on 2013 08 21

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.