Rhode Island is all atwitter about General Assembly grants. RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay says it is time for some measured study of the pros and cons of these legislative perks.
When it comes to Rhode Island’s legislative grant programs, it is time for a collective deep breath. Much is being lost in the media and political frenzy surrounding this minor piece of the state’s nearly $9 billion budget.
First, the General Assembly leadership has an omelet smeared across its face. The abrupt resignation of House Finance Chairman Ray Gallison, a Bristol Democrat, who was caught being paid from a legislative grant, is a huge embarrassment. Even worse is that the organization paying Gallison appears to have been dormant for over a year.
House Speaker Nick Mattiello never should have appointed Gallison to such an influential post as chief of the committee that shapes the state’s taxing and spending plans. Gallison had a record of scant regard for normal rules of ethics that every lawmaker ought to be aware of. And Mattiello should have known better.
That said, why should the sketchy, and possibly criminal, behavior of one lawmaker bring down a system, which may be imperfect, but does a lot of good for many programs that help people in our state.
Does it really make sense to slash funding for such agencies as Crossroads, which helps the homeless, the United Way’s summer learning effort, which fosters education in our struggling cities, and the Institute for The Study and Practice of Nonviolence, which has become a national model for curbing youth crime in urban settings and has strong support from such law-enforcement leaders as Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements?
And why so much ado about so little when it comes to the $2 million pool of direct lawmaker grants that are barely a drop in a $9 billion budget?
The Assembly is not a debating society or a Common Cause board meeting. It’s more like political science 101, where students learn that politics is about who gets what and how that happens. In every legislature, lawmakers are brokers for their districts. We expect them to work in the best interests of constituents. This is true at both the local and federal levels.
We put on a pedestal federal representatives and senators who steer programs back home. Yes, there is waste and bloat in the national defense budget. And lawmakers with seniority, seats on important committees and knowledge of home state needs get more things done. Does anyone really quibble when Sen. Jack Reed, from his perch on the Armed Services Committee, brings thousands of submarine building jobs to Quonset or add improvements is to the Naval War College’s campus in Newport.
The difference, of course, is that the federal grants have an elaborate system of vetting and audits. This doesn’t mean that nobody games the system, which is why we have U.S. Attorneys to investigate.
What Mattiello and Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed must do now is to ensure that grants are transparent and are closely monitored. One good move so far is that Gov. Gina Raimondo has gotten Administration Director Mike DiBiase, an administrator with wide experience in the private and public sector, involved in the process.
Most of the small grants, those in the $500 to $3,000 range, go to make life a little better in the Ocean State. They support such needs as soup kitchens, kids sports leagues, veterans groups and volunteer fire services. Lawmakers are the logical folks to make recommendations for such grants. They are elected every two years, presumably, at least, in part because they understand the needs of their districts.
Assembly leaders need to fix what Mattiello labeled a `political mess.’ But voters, too, have to shake off the apathy that keeps half of them neglecting to show up on election day. If you’re fed up with the Assembly, you can do your part by becoming an engaged citizen. All 113 Assembly are up for election this fall. You have the power over them is you want to use it. Or you can stay home and complain. It really is up to us.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org