The state Competitive Grants program may channel money to a variety of useful projects, as its defenders claim. But the structure of the program and the haphazard way the grants are awarded cry out for reform.
A recent review by The State newspaper found that organizations that received about one-fifth of the total $23 million awarded in grants have not filed reports on how they spent the money. In other cases, money awarded to grant winners was not spent as originally intended.
Supporters stress the fact that most of the money was accounted for and that problems with the program are small compared with the hundreds of grants awarded.
"Overall, 80 percent is a pretty doggone good rate," said Jimmy Bailey, a former state lawmaker who is on the five-member committee that dispenses the grants. "We do our job the best we can. The staff does a great job of follow-up."
An 80 percent reporting rate might be adequate, as Bailey claims. The larger point, however, is that the grant money -- taxpayers' money -- is handed out by unelected officials with entirely arbitrary standards regarding who the recipients are.
Gov. Mark Sanford has been one of the most vocal critics of the grants program. He unwittingly became part of the dispute when money left over from the national governors conference in Charleston -- which had received $150,000 from the grant program -- was siphoned to Carolinians for Reform, a special-interest group run by Sanford's campaign donors.
Sanford made a mistake in that case, but he has a point about the grants program. It disperses public money with little accountability and vague criteria regarding who receives the grants.
Proponents point to all the valuable events and projects the grants subsidize, including festivals, playgrounds, concerts, sports facilities, beautification projects, museums and tourism promotions. In some cases, however, the money is used for purposes other than those listed on the grant application.
The State reported, for example, that a $2,500 grant for playground equipment actually paid for an Elvis impersonator at a festival in Ridgeville. Another $5,000 grant for economic development was used to buy a deep fryer for the concession stand at a Kingstree youth baseball field.
But even if the money was spent for its allotted purpose, the issue is whether the granting process is equitable to begin with. Why should one city's festival be subsidized by the state when other cities pay for their own festivals? Why subsidize one community concert or golf tournament but not another?
Oversight of the program has improved in recent months, but an overhaul is needed. For starters, the Legislature should establish strict criteria governing which projects qualify for a grant.
In the end, however, the state might be better off scrapping the grants program altogether and establishing a new system under the direct purview of the Legislature to fund worthy community projects.
Legislature should revamp the Competitive Grants program so it is more accountable.
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