Scott MacKay Commentary: Time To Clean Up Statehouse Grant System

May 13, 2016

Another week of turmoil in Rhode Island over government grants to non-profit groups. 

RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay  has some ideas for making these programs honest and transparent. 

Last week Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation announced that a passel of Ocean State arts organizations will get more than $1 million in federal money to support such iconic local institutions as the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence WaterFire and Community Music Works.

It was a blush of happy news. All of our Washington representatives – senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and House members Jim Langevin and David Cicilline – took  credit in a joint news release.

Randy Rosenbaum, executive director of the state arts council, applauded the grants. ``We have seen clear evidence that the arts contribute dramatically to the Rhode Island economy and to the education of our children,’’ he gushed.

Contrast all that with recent news about local government  grants for supposed good causes. At the Statehouse, House Finance Chairman Ray Gaillson hastily walked away from his influential post after disclosures that he was being paid by a grant for a college readiness program that has piqued the interest of  law enforcement.

Then, a day after the federal arts grants were announced, Kevin Jackson, majority leader of the Providence City Council, was arrested for allegedly stealing more than $120,000 from a youth track and field organization. There are few worse headlines a politician can get than Jackson’s front page  Providence Journal’s boldfaced ``Stealing From Kids?''

Gallison hasn’t been charged with any crime. And Jackson is entitled to his presumption of innocence. Yet something is grievously wrong when taxpayers’ money is treated so callously. Violating the voters trust is a horrible thing that has occurred far too often in Rhode Island politics.

In the aftermath of the Gallison resignation, Gov. Gina Raimondo told RI Public Radio that she favors tightening control over the $11 million in community service grants doled out by state agencies. She asked Administration Director Mike DiBiase, a competent and trusted state official, to examine the programs.

Raimondo also urged the General Assembly to make the more than $2 million in Statehouse grants more transparent, competitive and accountable. The House Finance Committee, under a new chairman, has already announced a series of hearings, beginning Tuesday, to review the grants.

When it comes to federal money, there’s that mordant chestnut – I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help you. On this one, that sentiment might actually be true.

Take that federal arts money steered to Rhode Island last week. It comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency fathered many years ago by then-R.I. Sen. Claiborne Pell.  These grants usually receive three levels of review, including by independent panels of artists and art experts. They are subject to financial controls and audits.

This system isn’t foolproof; nothing run by human beings is. Several years ago, some federal money did get mixed up in the International  Institute for Sport fiasco at the University of Rhode  Island. Criminal charges are pending against that group’s director, former Trinity College basketball coach Dan Doyle.

This federal system is far superior to the ad hoc, know-a-guy-or -gal model used too often on Smith Hill. Some opponents of the Statehouse system want to abolish it. Yet there is no reason our lawmakers can’t set up an honest and accountable process that continues to support the many fine institutions that educate kids, provide for the vulnerable, and support communities.

State lawmakers often privately resent their federal colleagues for getting credit and re-election insurance for bringing federal money to Rhode Island, while the Smith Hill gang gets pilloried when their grants to pet projects are exposed as pure patronage.  And it is a fact that Assembly leaders have over the years used  grants to reward and punish individual lawmakers. Grants have become part of the glue that keeps the Statehouse running, in much the same manner that earmarks once provided that function in Congress.

Can anyone say with a straight face that Congress runs better since earmarks were abolished?

Now, the ball is in their court. Fix this mess or flirt with voter anger that is likely to result in the both in elimination of this gravy train and harm to many organizations that help make Rhode Island a better place.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org