Lawmakers Shell Out Over $350k in Legislative Grants
Monday, October 22, 2012
Senior centers, counseling services, Little Leagues and community action programs are among the dozens of programs that have been approved for nearly $370,000 in funds from the General Assembly this year, but critics say legislative grants have simply become a form of incumbency protection.
“The granting of taxpayer dollars from a slush fund to favored legislators and projects is a horrible way to manage the public treasury,” Moderate Party chairman Ken Block wrote in a letter addressed to Governor Lincoln Chafee, House and Senate Leadership and members of the House and Senate Finance Committees last week.
The legislative grant program came under fire last year after a state audit revealed that the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island couldn’t account for most of a $575,000 grant it received in 2007. In all, the Institute received more than $7 million in state funds since 1988.
As of Oct. 1, records show lawmakers had signed off on $369,400 in legislative grants to more than 100 programs (see the complete list below) for the current fiscal year. The largest grants include $50,000 between the House and Senate for Day One, a sexual assault and trauma resource center, $20,000 for Providence’s Inspiring Minds program and $15,000 for Sophia Academy, an all-girl middle school in Providence.
In his letter state leaders, Block singled out $13,000 in grants that went toward renovating a softball field in East Providence, pointing out that East Providence legislators hold leadership positions in both the House (Finance chairman Helio Melo) and the Senate (Finance chairman Daniel DaPonte).
To date, Melo has not been approved for any legislative grants, but DaPonte, who won his Democratic primary by 72 votes last month, is listed as the sponsor for $19,000 in grants that went to the East Providence Senior Center, the and East Bay Retired Senior Volunteer Program, East Bay Community Action Program.
“Show the voters of Rhode Island that you are serious about solving our economic problems by reining in a spending program that is of very dubious public value,” Block wrote. “Local projects deserving of state taxpayer funding should become specific line items of a budget passed by the legislature.”
Republicans Proposed Changes During Last Session
But Block isn’t the only state politician who has been critical of the millions of dollars in grants awarded in recent years. Last spring, freshmen State Senator Nicholas Kettle, a Republican, proposed legislation that would have require all grants to be voted on.
“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."
Another Republican, State Rep. Doreen Costa, went even further. Before the end of the legislative session, Costa introduced an amendment that would have directed the $2.3 million allocated for grants to restore funding for the developmentally disabled. The amendment was defeated 54-18.
In an interview earlier this year, Costa said she is against legislative grants altogether.
“I see it as a way to buy votes from their communities,” she 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.”
State Senator Defends Grants
Still, other lawmakers have defended the legislative grants as minimal expenses that go toward important community programs. During the last legislative session, Republican State Senator Beth Moura argued in favor of the grants.
“I was elected to speak for the hardworking people and their families who reside in Cumberland and Lincoln,” Moura said. “I refuse to rob them of the opportunity to see some of their tax dollars returned to benefit our community. These funds go directly to community assets like our Boys’ and Girls’ Club, elderly/disabled high rise residences and to our local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. This money belongs to the taxpayers, is a fraction of a fraction of a cent for every $1,000 they contribute, and I stand firm in my position that they’re entitled to receive some of it back. If it can’t be in the form of tax cuts, which I would prefer, I’ll take it for them any way that I can.”
The legislative grants are likely here to stay, especially after the State Supreme Court upheld a decision by the lower court to throw out a lawsuit brought on by several Republican lawmakers who questioned whether the grants were even legal.
Former State Rep. Nick Gorham, one of the Republicans who filed the suit, suggested the Sport Institute scandal should have opened eyes when it comes to legislative grants
“This is something you couldn't know unless something went wrong because you don’t know where the money goes,” Gorham said earlier this year. “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.”