Monday, August 17, 2009

Fixing Earmarks?

Aside from essentially placing his girlfriends on the payroll, the Mayor for Life gave thousands of dollars in earmarks to organizations connected to him in his Ward. According to a CityPaper investigation, Barry had a hand in creating and controlling the very organizations that received the money. In fact, some of the organizations were incorporated after they were slated to receive city money.

Barry made headlines because (1) he's Barry and (2) he’s brazen and blatant. Like Teflon, nothing seems to stick to the man. The fact is that many Councilmember use earmarks. Each year, millions of taxpayer dollars are given to politically-connected organizations. “Designated appropriations” are tucked away in budget legislation that the average citizen won’t be able to find. Usually, it is the Ward councilmember that inserts earmarks for organizations centered in his or her own ward.

There are legitimate questions as to what benefits some of these supposed one-time, no-bid grants produce for the taxpaying residents of the District.

Rest assured, Councilmembers benefit when re-election time arrives. Organizations whose programming or salaries are dependent on the cash infusion turn around and endorse the incumbent (unofficially through their individual leadership because they would jeopardize their tax exempt status should they do so as an organization), supply volunteers, and, in some cases, even hold lucrative fundraisers in support. For example, when I ran for the Ward 2 seat on the Council last year, I was shocked to find the Greater Washington Sports Alliance openly touting that it was hosting a VIP fundraiser for Councilmember Jack Evans because he had obtained a $500,000 earmark for the organization. Maybe that's not a quid pro quo, but it comes dangerously close.

During that period, which involved a similar surge in gang violence that we are experiencing now in Shaw, Mr. Evans held one of his “crime forums” At this one, he brought out the leadership of organizations such as Peaceoholics and the Alliance of Concerned Men to discuss their programs. (Peaceoholics received a $1 million for FY 2009 for anti-gang intervention and $500,000 in FY 2008 for mentoring). When residents plagued by gunfire despite the allocation of this money asked how this money was used, they were met with defensiveness and attacks from some members of the panel, and wholly nonresponsive answers. I've listed some of the crime-fighting, gang intervention-type organizations, but there are quite a few more. Would such money be better spent on more police officers, community college and vocational training, lengthening recreation center hours, or youth sports leagues?

Aside from anti-gang organizations, "big art" stands out as the other major recipient of earmark money in DC-- whether it's $10 million for Fords Theatre or millions to organizations such as the Washington Ballet and Washington Opera. The one-sentence explanations accompanying these outlays often states a purpose related to youth education and outreach. Who's against children? Well, given the amount we've been spending, taxpayers should expect DC's youth to be among the most cultured in the nation. Are they? Do deserving local artists and smaller organizations receive similar DC government support?

DC taxpayers have a right to be skeptical. When a Councilmember earmarks money for a nonprofit organization, he or she is essentially making a charitable contribution with your money. Only, you don't get a tax deduction and you don't have a choice in the matter.

I’m not ready to say we should eliminate all earmarks. There are truly worthy services provided by many of these organizations, who do their jobs well and better than the DC government could accomplish directly. Here are a few principles DC ought to consider:

1. Move toward more competitive grants. Earmarks, by their very nature, allocate money to politically connected organizations. Other groups, who may be more effective or in need of funds, may be overlooked. Give more organizations an opportunity to apply for funds for beneficial projects.

2. Transparency. Try finding the list of earmarks... I dare you. (Hint: you’ll need to go to the District’s Legislative Management Information System, find the final version of the annual Budget Support Act among other budget bills, make certain you have the approved final version of the bill, then find the 20 or so pages of earmarks tucked in the 150 or so page bill). If earmarks continue, the DC government should maintain a publicly available website listing:

  • each organization that receives a DC government grant;
  • the date of each allocation;
  • identify which councilmember sponsored the allocation;
  • explain, in detail, the purpose of the funds;
  • include a detailed budget for the funds;
  • provide contact information for the individual at the organization responsible for administering the funds;
  • include a record of each and every expenditure from the government allocation with an explanation; and
  • contain a link to a mandated report, filed by the organization at the end of the fiscal year, detailing the results achieved through the use of the earmark or grant money.
3. Accountability. The information provided on the DC website would provide citizens with the ability to better assess if their money is spent wisely. Organizations that do not show results should not be eligible for taxpayer funds in the future. Councilmembers who repeatedly give away our money to organizations based on politics instead of merit, should face consequences at the polls. The Council should also hold an annual oversight hearing related to the use of the previous year's earmarks.

I’d be interested in your perspective on this issue. How should the DC Council handle earmarks in the future?

1 comment:

Si Kailian said...

i remember that crime meeting, ron moten from peaceaholics was so defensive when anyone dared question what he was doing to alleviate gang problems, and none of the questions were out of line by any means. people just wanted to know, and perhaps help? it was the same story at the council hearing regarding the sosua emergency vehicle mess. no one was accusing him of anything but Moten acted like he was being persecuted just for being questioned. He was so disrespectful to Councilmembers Cheh & Mendelson. I'm sorry when you get over a million dollars in taxpayer money and end up involved in a shady deal, you need to answer questions. you dont have some politically protected status where you can do no wrong and therefore no one should dare ask you a thing, no.