Dr. Sonya Martin works with a patient following an extraction recently at the Friends in Need Health Center. Erica Yoon photo.
More than $250,000 in Tennessee “Community Enhancement Grants” — money considered either a godsend or unnecessary state spending — are being awarded to agencies across Sullivan County.
State lawmakers appropriated $20 million in Community Enhancement Grants (CEGs) this year to be doled out statewide to public safety groups, educational initiatives, cultural activities or community development.
But the number of requests for the grants totaled more than $175 million, according to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office. The office, at the direction of lawmakers, screened all applications and has announced partial lists of awards. Both governmental and non-governmental entities sought the grants.
CEG checks are being handed to more than 30 Sullivan County entities. On Thursday, for instance, at a Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce “After Hours” event at Asbury Place, House GOP Leader Jason Mumpower and Republican state Rep. Jon Lundberg were scheduled to give a $10,000 CEG check to Friends In Need (FIN), a nonprofit agency serving the working uninsured in Sullivan and Hawkins counties in Tennessee and Scott County, Va.
“This will go a long way to providing medical and dental care to the working uninsured in Sullivan, Hawkins and Scott counties,” FIN Director Al Wargo said of the check in an e-mail. “Our patient visits have risen over 50 percent over the last two years, to over 6,000 visits a year. These funds will help with the additional costs associated with this growth.”
Religious organizations, however, were shut out from being eligible for CEGs. A state attorney general’s opinion said that an unrestricted grant of state funds to several churches and youth groups would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment guarantees the government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in a religion.
The request for the opinion contained a list of five Baptist churches and 15 youth clubs apparently affiliated with churches.
“These grants on their face appear to favor the religion of the Baptists over the religion of others,” the opinion noted.
Also, having the Secretary of State’s Office be the administrator of the CEG program was a bad political move, state Rep. Nathan Vaughn said.
“We turned it into a monster,” Vaughn, D-Kingsport, said of the grant process. “We were going to get those grants to community groups that we were trying to help, and we turned it in to a bureaucratic nightmare where we turned over to the secretary of state ... we had all of these people applying for grants who would never be eligible for it. We had all kinds of red tape for them to go through. The program got politicized.”
Earlier this year, Mumpower had challenged House Democrats to “pull the pork spending” out of the state budget but then filed requests for CEGs in his district.
“I hope in the end it turns out to be a worthwhile thing,” Mumpower, R-Bristol, said of how the grant process ended up. “We took the extra step to make sure the agencies that received the dollars are worthwhile agencies for the taxpayers and the community.”
Also earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey opposed a proposal to give each state senator $300,000 for grants to use for projects in their individual districts. The Blountville Republican said: “Any way you characterize it, it is pork barrel spending.” The proposal failed.
Ramsey said using the Secretary of State’s Office to screen grant applicants was the right move.
“There were some (applicants) from our district that were turned down ... who didn’t get their paperwork in or didn’t prove they were not-for-profit,” Ramsey said. “The way we ended up doing it turned out to be fine.”
The money awarded must be spent by June 30, 2008.
For more information go to www.state.tn.us/sos.