For 'Sunshine Week,' lift the veil on state grant-making

March 16, 2010|By Marta H. Mossburg

This week is "Sunshine Week," launched to promote government transparency at the local, state and federal level.

While Gov. Martin O'Malley often touts how many statistics his administration puts on the Web, this week is a great opportunity to point out how the state could improve citizen access to information -- a vital component to a healthy democracy. At a time when the state can little afford to waste money, Mr. O'Malley's administration fails to adequately show how almost $1 billion each year is being used by nonprofit and for-profit companies given grants by state agencies. To put that figure in perspective, grants equal one-thirteenth of the operating budget and could send about 76,000 children to public school.

Legislation passed in 2009 requires the Department of Budget and Management to compile grant data from state agencies and post it in a searchable database. Fiscal 2009 information was posted six months late, on March 1, and the quality of it shows most agencies care little for fulfilling the spirit of the law. Worse, only about half the money is accounted for, as grants under $50,000 are not included in the database under the law.

Often, only the vaguest descriptions exist for how the money is used. "Minority outreach," "capacity building" and "gang prevention" are common descriptions. What's missing is an explanation for those meaningless phrases and whether an organization prevented children from joining gangs or did anything after allegedly "reaching out." (The Department of Agriculture is an exception. It gives specific information about grant recipients, including the names of farmers receiving subsidy payments for installing systems to protect the Chesapeake Bay from chemicals, and those who received payments that prohibit development on their property.)

Another problem: some of the information is wrong. The Montgomery County Collaboration Council for Children, Youth and Families is listed as having received seven grants of $302,947.86 apiece, one of which was allegedly for "staff training." Unless the council is as lavish a spender as the Republican National Committee under Chairman Michael S. Steele, the figure did not make sense. Denise Ridgely, director of communications for the group, said that the grants reflect payments throughout the year for all of its programs, not individual ones as noted. She said training dollars are used to teach providers best practices in early childhood care, youth development and other areas under its purview.

No doubt some organizations given grants provided limited information to agencies to evade scrutiny. Taxpayers and legislators should check the database at: http://dbmƒo.maryland.gov/agencies/operbudget/Pages/grantspayments.aspx and then do their own research to see if public money was used wisely.

Some information is better than no information, however. Who knew that Maryland taxpayers gave Morgan Stanley $3 million in 2009 after joining other Americans to give the company a $10 billion federal bailout under the Troubled Asset Relief Program? And who knew that five Jewish schools received a total of $381,000 in terrorism prevention money? How many businesses knew they could get hundreds of thousands of dollars from state taxpayers with no strings attached, especially if they have "nano" or "bio" in their names or promote minority business development?

While the information is incomplete, at least it is a start. Legislators should use Sunshine Week as a prompt to sift through the data and start asking questions of groups receiving hundreds of thousands from taxpayers.

No group should be able to receive money without first proving it fulfills a core state function. If grantees cannot account for the money they receive, they should not get any from taxpayers. And legislators should not allow agencies to give grants to nonprofits or companies that do not meet basic financial requirements. Random checks show that a lot of the money might not be spent in the public's best interest. For example, the Department of Business and Economic Development gave Booth Management Consulting $216,125 to advise minority companies on accounting and management. DBED could not say how the money was used, and the company's phone and e-mail are not working at its Columbia offices. A message left at its Washington office was not returned. It's time the billions spent on ending poverty and hunger and in the name of economic development in Maryland stopped functioning as job-creation programs for the few people fortunate enough to work for organizations receiving taxpayer dollars.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column starts today in The Baltimore Sun and will appear regularly. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com. To learn more about Sunshine Week, visit sunshineweek.org.

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