What to do about Legislative Grants? Representative Harold Metts is but the latest to plead for the legitimacy and need of the Grant program. However, as I pointed out, it’s not the legitimacy of the grants that is necessarily the issue so much as the legitimacy of the process. Legitimate needs can still be met through the Legislative Grant program so long as it is done with a legitimate process in place.
According to Ian Donnis, Mr. Speakah, Nick Mattiello, has promised a “thorough” revamping of the process in the next week or so. Perhaps the Speakah will propose making them a part of the regular budgeting process (hey, we can hope). If so, instead of hundreds of small grants being covered by a single-item block grant of slush fund money for favored legislators, each item will have to be brought to the floor and voted upon. Theoretically, that would mean each would be decided individually and Legitimate Grants will stand on their own merits. That is the very least that should be required.
Some may think that voting up or down on each item is a waste of the Legislature’s time. Then again, if they can take the time to vote on multiple (over 100 so far this session) acts ”RELATING TO SOLEMNIZATION OF MARRIAGES” to approve so-and-so performing a one-time-only marriage ceremony, I think they can take the time to vote up or down on actual tax dollars being spent. Being part of the regular budget process might also cause some to reconsider if it is really worth the time of the Legislature to decide if $500 should go to a particular legislator’s favorite Little League. Perhaps if all of them are broken out individually, the increased visibility provided to other legislators will result in fewer, more legitimate Grants dispersed more equitably. Again, we can hope. Unfortunately, the bet is that there will be an agreement to let them all sail through. Nonetheless, at least individual votes on each item will remove one layer of procedural obfuscation that currently exists and taxpayers will find it a little easier to see what is going on.
Any hoped-for procedural change won’t address the problem that the program itself is fundamentally corrupt as it is currently practiced here in Rhode Island. I agree that these relatively small donations help local organizations. The amounts given, even the smallest, can account for one less fundraiser, which frees up time for the organization to provide the services that they were formed to deliver. But the tax dollars that are being given to local organizations are being collected from statewide taxpayers. So people in Westerly are paying for Warwick’s Gaspee Days festivities. Or people on Block Island are helping to fund a Little League in, say, Johnston. And if one Little League gets $1,00, shouldn’t they all? Or one historical society? So who decides who gets what? We know the answer: the Speakah. The entire system is a political “Rub and Tug”, as Dan Yorke would say.
The Speakah dispenses the funds to legislators who better remember this come time for an important vote (say, for Truck Tolls) and the Speakah calls for them to fall in line. The understanding need not be verbalized; it’s understood. For their part, the legislators benefit by getting to bring the check to the organization while ensuring the local newspaper is on hand for a picture and a story. The effect? The legislator has now displayed their political “pull” and all-around “good guy-ness” (or “gal-ness”). Their constituents think, “Boy, he really works hard for us, doesn’t he? He’s a good guy.” And when we get news of more taxes or more regulation coming down from Smith Hill, the average voter doesn’t dig in to see exactly how their guy voted. After all, their guy is a good guy, he wouldn’t put the screws to us! It was “them”, the “other guys” who are “all the same” and are taxing us way too much. They’re all corrupt (except my guy)!
But “the other guy” is someone else’s “good guy”. And all of ’em keep getting elected.
ADDENDUM: In case anyone doubts the political nature of the Legislative Grants, here and here are two examples of legislators using the checks “they” gave as campaign fodder for themselves (and I just picked the first two from campaign websites I found using Google image search).