By Kristina Rasmussen -
Scrutiny of Gov. Pat Quinn’s awarding of $55 million questionable grants just prior to his 2010 election is intensifying.
As summed up by this editorial from The News-Gazette in Champaign:
“Two months ago, Auditor General William Holland reported the damning facts in an audit of Quinn’s 2010 Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, an election year effort that was aimed at reducing gun violence in some of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Unfortunately, what the audit revealed is that the money was largely flushed down the drain, handed out to favored groups under the supervision of the city aldermen and producing little in the way of concrete results. …
“Auditors faulted Quinn for insisting that too much money be spent in too little time, making it difficult for administrators in the Department of Human Services and the now-defunct Illinois Violence Prevent Authority to properly implement the program.”
Granting taxpayer dollars to entities outside of state government is big business in Illinois. In 2011, the state granted more than $1 billion to nonprofits.
Yet readily available information on any particular grant’s resulting activities, impact and efficiency is sorely lacking.
The Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal, or ITAP, allows the public to look up the amount of grants to organizations, but the trail ends there.
While it may be interesting to note that the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago recently got a $161,260 grant from the Department of Human Services, the public isn’t provided any information with which to evaluate this grant.
That’s why the Illinois Policy Institute spearheaded a grant accountability initiative in 2012 that earned bipartisan support in the Illinois Senate.
The measure contained some simple but comprehensive requirements that would have shed light on how the money was spent and what results were achieved.
At the time, we were told that demanding solid accounting and proof of results from groups receiving public funds was a “costly and unnecessary” burden.
Oh, how the times have changed.
With the blow up of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative scandal, Quinn is now pushing a new grant transparency bill, one that purports to improve grant oversight.
Is this good policy, good politicking or both?
Here’s how state Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, characterized the governor’s grant transparency push, as reported by the Belleville News-Democrat:
“’It’s pretty ironic. But you know, if you just got caught handing out $55 million in grants during an election year, and it turns out the money was a political slush fund, and now you’ve got the U.S. attorney and the Cook County state’s attorney looking into it, this would seem to me like the thing to do in another election year — to divert attention,’ Kay said.”
I’m still reading through the 39-page Grant Accountability and Transparency Act, but I would point out that Quinn’s team could do a better job of implementing existing grant transparency measures.
For example, a measure spearheaded by Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, and state Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, last year required the state’s Chief Information Officer – a role designated by the governor – to post basic grant information online at least quarterly.
Quinn signed the bill into law, which became effective at the start of 2014.
As of this afternoon, the designated “Grants Explorer” page on data.illinois.gov is nonfunctional. Users are asked to “click an agency above to view its data,” but no agencies are listed to click.
Transparency and accountability are nice buzzwords, but what really matters is the commitment to doing the job right once the spotlight has moved on.
The unfortunate truth is that Illinois government doesn’t have a lot of extra money sitting around to be granted out right now in the first place.
So yes, focus on improving the process; but Illinois needs leaders to step up and make real choices about which grants should stay and which should go based on performance results from prior years.
And the best way to avoid politically motivated grant entanglements? Don’t get too comfortable handing out other people’s money.
Kristina Rasmussen is Executive Vice President at the Illinois Policy Institute