Legislative leaders announced Monday the elimination of a grant program that has sparked controversy following the resignation of former House Finance chairman Ray Gallison last month. They also said they're maintaining control of a smaller grant program that critics call overly politicized.
During a Statehouse news conference, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said they are immediately dismantling the community service grant program, which is giving out more than $11 million this year. Instead, the money that was distributed by the grant program in the past will be administered by the executive branch of government, they said, and distributed through different departments of state government.
Paiva Weed said the changes being implemented in the legislative budget slated for unveiling Tuesday will offer the following improvements: “A line-item appropriation in the annual budget proposal, where recipient is named in the act under an appropriate department, open debate throughout the budget process, and any and all named recipients being subject to audit by the Bureau of Audits."
Paiva Weed and Mattiello said lawmakers should never be paid through legislative grants -- a situation present in how part of Gallison's salary was paid through grants given for years to an education nonprofit.
At the same time, they said they will keep control of the legislative grant program that awards a little more than $2 million each year, typically in grants of a thousand or a few thousand dollars to youth sports leagues, soup kitchens, parade committees and other local groups.
Critics say the legislative grant process is a way of keeping rank-and-file lawmakers compliant.
Legislative leaders defended the program. They said local lawmakers are sensitive to local needs, and they contended the program is administered transparently and without favoritism.
“Everyone says the speaker utilizes them to give out and curry favor – it’s not what we use them, it’s not my practice," Mattiello said. "Everybody that’s ever asked has gotten one – not one 'no,' " although he said there was an occasion when a request was reduced in size.
Mattiello and Paiva Weed said they are not aware of any other lawmakers who have been questioned in connection with the ongoing law enforcement probe of Gallison. The exact focus of the investigation remains unknown.