- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - As the Rhode Island General Assembly winds down for the year and lawmakers prepare to launch their re-election campaigns, Democratic leaders are dropping hot-button social issues as they search for a resolution to the ethical quandaries that have overshadowed the State House in recent weeks.

A final state spending proposal is expected to hit lawmakers’ desks this week, signaling that the legislative session is coming to a close.

One of the biggest debates is over a small portion of the $8.6 billion state budget: just under $14 million that legislators direct to community organizations, from parade committees to anti-poverty groups.

Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello held a closed-door Democratic caucus on Wednesday evening to hear what fellow lawmakers consider their budget priorities before the final proposal gets delivered to the House Finance Committee sometime this week. The fact that there’s an estimated $121 million budget surplus means there is less to fight over this year.

But what to do about grants dominated the discussion. There’s an $11.4 million program to award grants to community service groups and an additional $2.2 million in small grants that legislators direct to charity organizations in their districts.

“We don’t want to hurt people who use the grants for a very good cause,” said Rep. Charlene Lima, a Cranston Democrat and the deputy speaker, in an interview after the caucus. “But we have to make sure the process is transparent and accountable.”

Lawmakers have been reeling since the May 3 resignation of Democratic House Finance Chairman Raymond Gallison amid a federal investigation. The scope of the investigation hasn’t been made public, but it has attracted public attention to grants that paid Gallison’s salary to run a nonprofit organization. Since then, news outlets have scrutinized other grants and the lawmakers with close personal ties to the organizations that get funded. Republicans have called for an overhaul of the program.

In an unusual Tuesday speech from the speaker’s rostrum that criticized the Providence Journal for its coverage of the grants controversy, Mattiello acknowledged that the grants were a “political mess” that needed some kind of reform.

The grants add a level of controversy that lawmakers were hoping to avoid before adjourning in mid-June as the campaign season begins ahead of the September primary and November general election.

Mattiello made clear in recent weeks that he’s not letting several of the season’s most controversial bills go forward to a vote, including one that would have legalized recreational marijuana and another to grant driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.

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