Patronage endures, even in hard times

Lawmakers look to steer cash to nonprofits they help run

General Assembly 2009

March 22, 2009|By Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter | Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter, and

State lawmakers, using a system of patronage that persists in Annapolis despite tight budgetary times, are seeking to direct hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to projects at nonprofit organizations they help run.

In Baltimore, Del. Hattie N. Harrison has requested $75,000 for the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition and an affordable housing development. The Democrat is president of the nonprofit, and her son, Phillip, is employed as a counselor there.

Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, wants as much as $250,000 to expand the BlackRock Center for the Arts, a theater and teaching venue where he sits on the board and his daughter takes jazz classes. And Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's County Democrat, is seeking a quarter of a million dollars for a proposed African-American history museum; she serves on that board.

The funding appeals are made through the General Assembly's version of pork-barrel spending, under which capital projects are financed with debt issued through bonds by the state and repaid by taxpayers. In these cases, lawmakers not only bring dollars to their districts that they can laud in campaigns, but they also secure funding for causes to which they are personally connected.

Disclosure of lawmaker relationships with organizations seeking state bond money is spotty. The legislature's ethics counsel, William G. Somerville, said that lawmakers, in the interest of full disclosure, should report the potential conflicts on forms kept by his office, but few lawmakers do so.

The funding makes up a tiny fraction of the state budget, a proposed $15 million this year, down from $25 million last year, out of a capital spending plan of about $3.2 billion. Still, critics such as Christopher Summers, president of the conservative-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute, said the borrowing is not a "prudent" use of taxpayer dollars and gives rise to conflicts of interest.

"There is no transparency in the process," said Summers, whose think tank has researched connections between lawmakers and bond bill recipients.

Lawmakers defend the bond funding for organizations in which they are involved, saying that they are volunteering their time and that board memberships give them insight into their communities' needs. Several lawmakers who did not file ethics disclosures said they are not concealing their involvement and disputed any conflict, real or perceived.

"I'm not hiding nothing, and I get nothing out of the organization," said Sen. George C. Edwards, a Western Maryland Republican who has helped secure bond financing of nearly $745,000 for Adventure Sports Center since 2005. Edwards is chairman of the board of the Garrett County nonprofit, which operates a 1,700-foot artificial whitewater course atop Marsh Mountain.

Edwards has also sponsored bills to give tax breaks to the organization. He said he makes no secret of the affiliation but has not disclosed his unpaid position on legislators' ethics forms. "You don't remember to disclose everything," he said. "I probably overlooked it."

Garagiola did disclose his relationship with the BlackRock arts center in ethics forms. "I am in the Senate to do some good in the community, and the reason I am on this board is to do some good in the community," Garagiola said, adding that he believes it is a worthy project that deserves funding.

Ivey, who didn't make disclosures related to bond bills, also helped secure $200,000 last year for the Family Crisis Center for victims of domestic violence, where she serves on the advisory council. She said she doesn't see a conflict because she was not paid for her work with the nonprofits, and compared her situation to a lawmaker who volunteers at his or her child's school and then advocates for public education in Annapolis.

"We're elected because we're involved, so obviously we're connected to groups that want bond bill funding," she said.

Harrison, who also chairs the board of directors at the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, hasn't disclosed the relationship on ethics forms but says that "everybody knows" she helps run the group and that her son is a paid employee. The state money she funnels there "is to help the program, not to help him," she said. Asked whether she is paid for her service, the lawmaker said, "Oh, heavens to Betsy, no."

"Everything we sponsor is used to help the community," she added. "No personal money goes to anyone."

Competition for funding is fierce this year; lawmakers have filed requests for about twice the amount set aside.

Committees are expected to pick the projects to include in the capital budget this week. Some said nonprofits tap lawmakers for board seats precisely because of their influence on the state budget process. Sen. David R. Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican on the Budget and Taxation Committee, which has purview over bond bills, said that's a "tactic" for organizations seeking funding.

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