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Jon Coupal- Columnist

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website] [go to Coupal index]

State Grants Lack Accountability
Sacramento under the radar pork…

[Jon Coupal] 3/25/05

Taxpayers have learned to be cynical about bills introduced in the Legislature. Many pieces of legislation are frivolous and even those that sound good are often not what they seem. More times than not, a bill will seek to advance a hidden policy agenda that would be rejected out of hand if done aboveboard. Worse yet are those bills which -- when carefully analyzed -- are exposed to be special interest laws designed to give self-serving campaign contributors an advantage over their competitors. The third category of bad legislation is reflected by those bills which are simply silly.

In his campaign to reform state government, Governor Schwarzenegger has criticized the Legislature for ignoring the state's important business while spending time on silly bills. Legislation currently being considered would ban cosmetic surgery for dogs, provide condoms to prisoners, and prohibit ice cream trucks from double parking.

Of course silly bills are nothing new. Last year a bill was introduced to require public buildings to accommodate Feng Shui -- an ancient Chinese art of design and architecture which is supposed to create a harmonious energy flow in a space. A few years earlier, the State Senate considered a bill to designate the banana slug the state mollusk. Then there was the bill sponsored by Willie Brown that would have granted a liquor license to a nudist colony. Few taxpayers will be surprised to learn that the colony's owner was a major contributor to Brown's political campaigns, although, in fairness, it must be noted that there is no record of mollusk contributions to the banana slug bill's author.

While some bills become widely known because they are the butt of jokes, much more insidious are those low profile measures that allow lawmakers to dole out money to favored causes or supporters with little or no scrutiny. These "gifts" of public funds are often referred to as "pork."

The recent resignation of Secretary of State Kevin Shelly put the spotlight on the dangers inherent in pork barrel politics. Although Shelly was under fire for mismanaging his office, he is the subject of an ongoing investigation into the circumstances surrounding his helping secure, while a member of the Assembly, a $500,000 state grant to build a community center in San Francisco. The facility was never built but backers contributed heavily to a Shelly political campaign.

You can bet the farm that this abuse of state grant money is just the tip of the iceberg.

A just-released study of 20 grants undertaken by the office of State Controller Steve Westley has raised serious questions about nine of them. "We found problems across the board in the way these grants have been administered," said Westley.

The controller's report found an appalling lack of oversight in the administration of grant money. In many cases grant recipients failed to provide documentation of how the money was spent and evidence was uncovered showing funds were spent in ways that were inconsistent with the purpose of the grants.

Among those grants singled out for criticism was $221,625 to the Colour Me Freedom Foundation. The money was to be used to establish a memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. However, all the foundation has to show for the money is a portable building used by the school for storage.

Of $30 million in state grants provided to the Western Center for Archeology that is building a museum in Hemet, at least $606,000 may have been misspent, including pay to a board member for work that was never completed.

Although for years the majority in the Legislature has stifled efforts to raise standards for the way in which grants are approved, the recent publicity given to examples of fraudulent misuse of taxpayer grant dollars has created an opportunity to change the system to bring accountability to the process. Assemblyman Joel Cancimilla (D-Pittsburgh) has introduced a bill to clean up the grant distribution process. AB 725 would require grant recipients to clearly state how the money would be spent and would hold them accountable.

The intent behind this bill is certainly something taxpayers can applaud. CRO

Jon Coupal is an attorney and President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

copyright 2005 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association



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