PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s Democratic legislative leaders on Monday announced major changes to their $11-million program of community-service grants, in a bid to quiet criticism following former House Finance Committee Chairman Ray Gallison’s resignation.
“I want to thank everyone in the public who is calling for reform,” House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said during a midday news conference at the State House, noting that he and the others had “inherited” the grants program from previous General Assembly leaders.
Gallison – who resigned abruptly last month amid legal trouble – is executive director of a private nonprofit that has received more than $2 million in such grants, which are taxpayer dollars allocated by lawmakers to dozens of specific groups. After Gallison resigned, individuals listed as board members at his nonprofit told Target 12 they had no idea their names were being used.
Speaking Monday on the eve of the state budget’s unveiling, Mattiello and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed said they are making two major changes to the program: turning a small number of key grants into direct line items in the budget, and allowing individual state agencies to decide for themselves how to distribute the rest.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that there is a better way to administer state dollars,” Mattiello said, declaring that the community-service grants program “as we have known it will cease and will be no more.”
While she signed on to the changes, Paiva Weed went out of her way to defend how most of the community-service grant money has been used over the years, saying they “have provided support for critical services for thousands of Rhode Island’s neediest residents.” She cited examples such as food banks, senior centers, homeless shelters, veterans services and domestic-violence support.
However, the two leaders said they don’t plan to touch the better-known category of legislative grants, a roughly $2-million program that allots money to organizations such as little leagues at the two leaders’ discretion. Supporters say that program is more transparent than the one that benefited Gallison’s nonprofit, but critics say it amounts to a slush fund used to reward legislators for loyalty. Mattiello countered that he’s never rejected an application for them.
On the community-service grants that are being restructured, Mattiello said “a couple dozen” groups will receive money from direct line items in the budget, such as Crossroads, the homeless shelter in Providence. He said they did not yet have a full list of those groups or a firm amount of money for the new version of the grants, but said it would be significantly less than the current tab of $11.6 million.
John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, welcomed the proposals. He recalled that Rhode Island voters passed a constitutional amendment more than a decade ago requiring separation of powers, mainly to stop legislators from telling executive-branch agencies what to do outside of statute.
“If they manage to pull off the changes that they proposed, over time this is going to fix the program,” Marion told WPRI.com.
Speaking before the news conference, Gov. Gina Raimondo said she thought it “would be appropriate” to have the grants allocated in the same way as other budget dollars.
“I’m pleased that it seems like the legislature is taking action,” she said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, many of the agencies that receive these monies are very worthy. They feed the homeless; it’s Meals on Wheels. It’s the process that we need to look at to make sure that it’s competitive and transparent and accountable.”
Asked about the better-known legislative grants that aren’t being touched, Raimondo said “the same principles apply to both.”
Mattiello also said new rules will bar groups from receiving grant money if they employ a legislator, as Gallison’s did, though the speaker added that he was unaware of any other such examples. He said groups will still be eligible if lawmakers serve on their boards without compensation, alluding to the John Hope Settlement House, a troubled nonprofit chaired by Rep. Anastasia Williams that is currently receiving a $300,000 community-service grant.
Yet the controversy surrounding Gallison has not gone away. Mattiello acknowledged that an audit he ordered of the taxpayer money granted to Gallison’s group has so far failed to result in obtaining any information from the former lawmaker.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult for us to get that documentation,” Mattiello said. But he added that he thinks the federal investigation into Gallison may already be looking at how the money was spent.
Legislative leaders spoke a day before one of the biggest moments of the year at the State House, when the House Finance Committee will unveil – and immediately approve – a compromise state budget ironed out in closed-door talks between the speaker, the Senate president and the governor.
Mattiello declined to offer any specifics about what changes had been made to the governor’s original proposal, but said it would be “a very, very, very good budget.”Ted Nesi (email@example.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes The Saturday Morning Post and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and InstagramDan McGowan contributed to this report.