The Return of ‘Competitive Grants’

THAT’S A EUPHEMISM FOR ‘PORK BY COMMITTEE’

[Update: This proviso was struck from the House budget when the bill went to the floor.]

Buried in this year’s state budget bill is a proviso establishing a program that may sound familiar. The program is the Competitive Grants Review Committee – a committee that doles out money for special “community”-oriented projects around the state. Gov. Mark Sanford famously termed the program a “legislative slush fund” because the grant allocations often looked indistinguishable from old-fashioned pork. Lawmakers were finally pressured into killing the program in 2009.

The stated purpose of the Competitive Grants program is to award “community grants that will benefit the citizens of South Carolina to political subdivisions and nonprofit organizations.” There are six areas in which the program would award grants: health, environmental matters, travel, tourism, economic development, and parks and recreation. As with most other programs and committees with similar aims, the program would be another means by which projects would receive money from the legislature – but outside of the standard budget process.

The Competitive Grants Review Committee?

The program’s Review Committee would have five members, appointed by the usual suspects: president pro tempore of the Senate, the speaker of the House, the chairman of Senate Finance, and the chairman of House Ways and Means. Of note, Senator Hugh Leatherman, Senate president pro tem and Finance chairman, would appoint two fifths of this committee.

Once the members of the committee are selected, they’d be tasked with meeting, developing guidelines for grant applications, and judging potential projects. The members would serve two-year terms, and be required to meet at least twice a year to review grant applications.

Funding for grants comes from the Litigation Recovery Account, which is funded by money recovered by the state in legal proceedings. Recipients of funds from the Competitive Grants Review Committee would have to report on the expenditure of those funds until the funds are completely expended.

In effect, this budget proviso would create yet another avenue through which legislative leaders can funnel money to their friends and reward their allies.

Of course, they can already do that – indeed they do it all the time, through the annual appropriations act – so it’s not clear why they need another vehicle. A realistic observer could be forgiven for thinking legislative leaders simply need a more innocuous-sounding mechanism by which to deliver pork to their cronies. Having decisions on the distribution of pork made by a committee of non-lawmakers instead of by lawmakers themselves would seem to accomplish that goal.

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