PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island state representatives sought 348 legislative grants during the last budget year, requesting nearly $1 million in four- and five-figure checks they could deliver to local little leagues, libraries, senior centers and nonprofits.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello approved 347 of those 348 requests, ranging from $33,000 for the Cranston West Alumni Association and $25,000 for the Cranston Western Little League in his hometown, down to $350 for the Sogkonate Garden Club in Little Compton.
The Cranston Democrat drew the line at only one of the 348 grant requests: $5,000 sought by House Minority Whip Mike Chippendale for the Foster Department of Human Services, to fund a driver for a van to transport seniors in the rural town of less than 5,000 residents.
“The Speaker thought that paying for a van driver should come out of the Foster town budget,” Jennifer Amerantes, a legislative aide in Mattiello’s office, wrote a House Republican aide on May 13 in explaining why Mattiello rejected the request.
“I was shocked,” Chippendale told 12 News. “I immediately called the speaker and he never returned my phone call – so I wrote him a personal plea elaborating on the need for this grant in my town. That email was never responded to by the speaker or his staff. About a month later I tried to approach the speaker on the floor to discuss this with him, but he wouldn’t give me his attention.”
In an email to Mattiello the same day House GOP staff learned the grant had been rejected, Chippendale laid out his case, citing the fact that the town has no public transportation because it’s not served by RIPTA, and insisting it did not have the flexibility in its nearly $11 million budget to fund the bus driver for senior citizens.
Mattiello disagreed — and that decision was final, since the speaker reserves for himself the unilateral power to decide on legislative grants.
“He read Rep. Chippendale’s email appeal and the speaker did not feel it was appropriate to provide a legislative grant as an end-around RIPTA,” Mattiello spokesperson Larry Berman told 12 News. “This is an issue between the Town of Foster and RIPTA that should be addressed by RIPTA.” He added, “The speaker recommends that the community continue to appeal to RIPTA.”
Asked why Mattiello denied Chippendale’s request while approving $5,000 legislative grants requested by Democrats for the municipal senior centers in Tiverton and West Warwick, Berman said, “it was funding directly for existing programs that were impacted by COVID-19” and “the request was not for a bus driver.”
The dispute over the Foster van driver is just the latest controversy to shadow the legislative grants program, a pot of roughly $2 million in taxpayer money that is given out at the discretion of the House speaker and Senate president. Critics have long said the program lets incumbents effectively buy support with public money by delivering small checks to local groups, while supporters say it allows plugged-in politicians to direct resources to organizations that need it most.
The once-friendly relationship between Mattiello and leading House Republicans has soured of late, with House Minority Leader Blake Filippi and Chippendale filing suit earlier this year over the speaker’s failure to convene meetings of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, the panel that is supposed to authorize spending and hiring from the General Assembly’s $45.6 million annual budget.
Chippendale said he suspects the speaker’s real reason for denying the $5,000 senior van grant was political retribution over the JCLS lawsuit.
“Regrettably it appears that the speaker’s oft bragged about claim that his decisions on legislative grants is not political, is yet another lie from him,” Chippendale said. “It is clear that the political tensions between the speaker and myself that arose when the JCLS lawsuit was filed, among other issues, were driving his contemptuous decision to deny this desperately needed grant.”
Mattiello’s office countered that the senior van request was just one of 13 legislative grants that Chippendale sought for his district in the last budget year, and that Mattiello approved 12 of the 13, awarding a total of $19,000 to groups such as the Foster Ambulance Corps, the Chepachet Fire Department and the Gloceseter Heritage Society.
Berman also insisted that while the Foster DHS grant was the only one that Mattiello refused to fund this year, he has rejected other grants in the past.
“We don’t keep records of grants rejected in previous years, but there have been some,” Berman said. (He also clarified that rejected requests do not appear on the public list of legislative grants published on the General Assembly’s website.)
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook