More than $500,000 of the taxpayer money handed out through the $2 million legislative grant program goes to organizations hand-picked by the General Assembly’s top Democrats, a Target 12 review has found.
Legislative grants – millions handed out by lawmakers to local charities, nonprofit organizations and youth sports programs – have been a source of controversy for years. Critics have called them slush funds that provide taxpayer money to help those in power, while lawmakers who tap into them say the money helps out organizations that are vital to their communities.
Data for the 2016-17 fiscal year shows $2.2 million in legislative grants were awarded to 828 groups by nearly 100 of Rhode Island’s 113 lawmakers. The grants range in size from $250 for a Wakefield animal rescue group to a combined $100,000 for the Station Fire Memorial Fund.
A Target 12 analysis finds that the General Assembly’s top six Democratic lawmakers account for 25% of all grant money, or one in every four dollars given out.
Leading the pack last year was the No. 3 Senate Democrat, Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin of Providence, who gave out a total of $218,000: $82,000 in her name alone and another $136,000 teaming up with the Senate president and majority leader. In the Senate, she was followed by then-Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. Then-Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio – who succeeded Paiva Weed a year ago – was third.
On the House side, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello came on on top, giving out $158,500 in grants: $108,500 individually – the highest amount in each chamber for a lawmaker acting individually – and the rest teamed up with other representatives. After Mattiello on the list was House Majority Whip Jay Edwards, D-Tiverton, and House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick.
The Target 12 review also found communities home to powerful lawmakers have the highest number of grants per capita. Cranston – where Speaker Mattiello lives – topped the list, followed by Newport, home to then-Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed. North Providence, represented by then-Majority Leader (now Senate President) Dominick Ruggerio is third.
All legislators who request grants must have them approved by either the speaker or Senate president. Goodwin said there is a strict process in how the money is awarded, and argued it goes to organizations that truly need it. Records show her biggest grant was $20,000 to the DaVinci Center, a social-service nonprofit that caters to residents of Providence’s North End.
But former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Block, who has been an outspoken critic of grants over the years, calls them “the ultimate insider’s tool.”
“What the data you have here makes very clear is legislative leadership takes the lion’s share of these dollars,” Block said. “They are going to the ones that are the most politically connected, and that’s the worst kind of political dollars.”
Goodwin pushed back at Block’s suggestion that power equals money when it comes to grants. She said the amount a lawmaker hands out is more a byproduct of years served rather than political capital.
“I’m the second-longest serving member in the Senate and so those grants have accumulated over the years,” said Goodwin, who was first elected in 1986. “Secondly, my district is not a wealthy district – it has a great amount of need.”
The legislative grant program is different from the community-service grants program, a larger pot of money done away with in 2016 after a scandal involving disgraced former Rep. Ray Gallison. Legislative leaders said at the time they had no plans to touch the smaller program, arguing it was more transparent than the one tied to Gallison.
Mattiello declined Target 12’s request for an interview, but in a statement he similarly argued that legislative grants “provide needed assistance for non-profit organizations in the city of Cranston and throughout the state.”
“However, I am always evaluating our expenditures and I will look carefully at the worthiness and value of this program in the future,” the speaker continued.
Block said the grant program should be done away with entirely.
“If a legislator needs to provide goodwill to the community, that $1,500 should come from their campaign finance account,” Block said. “It shouldn’t come from state tax dollars.”
Ted Nesi contributed to this report.