Public officials will tell you the state needs to fund its priorities first — universities, schools, roads, health care, coastal restoration and small business development. So why do we spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money each year on less important, and in many cases, unimportant things?
Take NGOs, for example. “NGO” stands for nongovernmental organization. You’ve probably seen the names of some state-funded NGOs in the media recently: the Just Willing Foundation, the Purple Circle Social Club, Serenity 67, the Smiles and Happiness Foundation and the HOP-2-It Music Company. Through the years the legislative and executive branches have given these and other NGOs at least $500 million, all of it at the expense of vital services and products that taxpayers need and deserve.
Some of this money is given to NGOs directly through line item appropriations in the state’s operating and building budgets. Some is given to other governmental entities, such as the City of Baton Rouge, which then distributes the funds to the NGOs. The most recent way NGOs get paid is through consulting contracts with state agencies.
The funding process can be very hard to follow. For example, in 2008, the legislature appropriated $160,000 to an NGO called Riz Up Louisiana. The governor vetoed this funding (Veto #72, #149). Riz Up Louisiana then walked across the street and got a consulting contract (#674048) with the governor’s Department of Social Services. The same process — appropriation, veto, consulting contract — resulted in funding for Doorway to Louisiana, SMILE Community Action, the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, City at Peace and 21 others in 2008 and 2009.
There are, of course, NGOs worthy of state funding. The Council on Aging comes to mind. All NGOs, however, should be required to provide quarterly accountings with receipts and cancelled checks so taxpayers can see how their money is being spent, though many NGOs refuse. I just forwarded 19 NGOs that refused to provide accountings to the new state Office of Debt Recovery to be sued. We’re going to try to get back the taxpayer money and, if it has been spent, seize the assets of the noncompliant NGOs.
The real issue with NGOs, however, is not whether they are worthy — some are, some aren’t — but whether they are as or more worthy than the state’s other competing needs, such as colleges, schools, roads, ports, health care, wetlands and small business. If a public official decides to fund the Purple Circle Social Club before funding LSU, people deserve to know why.
The best way to end NGO abuse, in my judgment, is to bring the process into the sunlight. No more burying the funding in the bowels of a 1,000 page budget. No more paying NGOs through intermediaries. No more backdoor funding them through hidden consulting contracts.
The new rule should be: an NGO can receive taxpayer money only through a separate bill sponsored by a named legislator that the legislature, in public session, passes with a 2/3 vote, after which the NGO, if successful in receiving funding, will be required to provide quarterly public accountings and be subject to automatic periodic audit by the Legislative Auditor.
Do this, and taxpayers will know which of their elected officials actually walk the walk –and which just talk the talk.