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Lawmakers Dish Out Millions in Controversial Legislative Grants

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


The money will go to everything from local Babe Ruth leagues and community centers to libraries and church groups, but critics of the nearly $2 million that will be dished out by state lawmakers through the General Assembly’s legislative grant program this fiscal year say the program lacks any oversight whatsoever.

The end result, as incidents like the still-unfolding scandal at the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island have highlighted, can be a waste of millions in taxpayers’ dollars on grants that are never voted on and are mostly unknown to Rhode Island residents.

“This is something you couldn't know unless something went wrong because you don’t know where the money goes,” said former State Rep. Nick Gorham, whose lawsuit to end legislative grants is currently in front of the State Supreme Court. “I just believe this is exactly what is going to happen every time you have the grant system you have. And the people should demand better.”

Gorham began calling for changes to the legislative grant system a decade ago when House Republicans wanted to increase transparency in the program “because we never felt we were getting the full picture.”

He said the Sport Institute, which has benefited from over $7 million in taxpayer-funded grants, showcases the flaws of the program.

“The Institute blows the whole thing wide open,” Gorham said. “But how many unknown unknowns are still out there? I just became convinced they were not keeping track of anything at all.”

Where the Money Goes

The majority of legislators request mostly small grants (less than $5,000) for programs that generally benefit their district. They money often goes to schools, extracurricular activities for children and community programs.

You can view a full list of grants awarded to House members by clicking here and to Senate members by clicking here.

In 2012, House and Senate Leadership, House Speaker Gordon Fox, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed and Majority Leaders Nicholas Mattiello and Dominick Ruggerio have handed out a total of $220,000.

Senate Leadership leads the way with $68,000 in grants going to Day One (a Sexual Assault & Trauma Resource Center), the Japan/America Society and Ocean State Tall Ships.

Paiva Weed, who has given out nearly two dozen grants, has awarded money to programs ranging from senior centers and parks to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. Ruggerio’s largest grants went to the Da Vinci Center in Providence and Sophia Academy.

Bill Would Increase Transparency

But not all legislators participate in the program. Republican State Rep. Dan Reilly said he believes the grants should be voted on “separately by the Assembly as with all other expenditures.”

“Because that is not the process, I can't support or participate in the grants program as it is currently implemented,” Reilly said.

Reilly isn’t the only one calling for changes. The lack of oversight of the program has prompted first-term State Senator Nicholas Kettle to introduce a bill that would require all grants to be voted on. He said his bill will bring transparency to the program.

“The legislation that I have submitted will bring transparency to the grant process by requiring all grants to be itemized in the budget which will allow the assembly to vote on them, which is requirement of the R.I. constitution in article 6 section 11 which requires a 2/3 vote for all public funds or property used for local or private purposes,” Kettle said. “My bill simply brings transparency to the grants so taxpayers know where there money is going but also brings the grant process in line with the constitution of Rhode Island."

House Speaker Gordon Fox has already said he is committed to adding more transparency to the process, according to House spokesman Larry Berman.

“Yes he is - he has asked Auditor General Dennis Hoyle to prepare recommendations to strengthen the integrity of the process,” Berman said.

Grants are the Steroids of Government.

But Gorham said the problem is larger than a lack of checks and balances. He said that too often, grants are awarded to political supporters and not simply out of acts of altruism.

“Imagine the General Assembly as a baseball team,” he said. “The legislative grants are the steroids of government. Everyone needs them to compete and win."

State Rep. Doreen Costa agreed with Gorham. She said that if lawmakers want to award donations to certain organizations, they should do so from their own campaign account, something she says she has done “many times.”

Costa said she is against an oversight commission and voting on the grants because she doesn’t believe taxpayer funds should ever be used to award grants to local organizations. With so many cities and towns struggling financially, she said, the grants set a poor example.

“I see it as a way to buy votes from their communities,” Costa said. “The state is broke. Look at Providence, Woonsocket, Central Falls. $2 million could go a long way in these struggling cities and towns. Whoever gave out grant money should be held accountable.”

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