Too often one of the side effects of politics is that people expect their elected officials to “bring home the bacon."
I fully understand that unlocking the grants, appropriations, incentives, and the like for one’s constituents can be a net positive. I’ve also experienced that far too often it becomes an expectation for the job, as if some qualifier of success in office is based on whether or not a politician can also be a sugar daddy and put a little sumpin’ sumpin’ on the table.
It was at times one of the most enjoyable aspects of public office. It was also at times one of the least enjoyable.
“Hey Senator, how about a little of that discretionary money for this or that?” It ranged from the perfect to the maddening. Boy Scout Troops and little league teams, parks and historical monuments, school resources and new band uniforms. Those were all wonderful.
But for every joyous and hopeful request, there was the shameful request for something purely based on an avid desire to get some more from the trough. I even had one guy literally want me to find a way to get a special grant for his business. Not because it was something that fit within some government grant program or because he qualified for underprivileged or special status. No, it was just that he wanted some money for his business.
The grants that state politicians are able to help with are designed with specific intent. The problem with the culture of expectation is also generally a product of politicians who take credit and create the expectation because it serves a political purpose.
So let me let you in on a secret here. I’m literally about to give you the ingredients to the secret sauce (and some state legislators will not like that I’m going to say this.) Here’s the thing: Alabama State Legislators have some ability to give grants to constituents for education-based projects in their district, and in some districts there are grant boards that administer local funds and the local state legislator may have a person that they’ve appointed to the Board of that granting organization.
But by law the legislator cannot directly harbor, dole out, or even handle those grants.
Why? Because they are actually public funds generated by taxes collected from you and me. No matter how benevolent a state rep or state senator tries to appear, the fact is that they are doing nothing more than just directing a little bit of the traffic to help appropriate funds toward a cause and under serious legal restrictions.
It was a pet peeve of mine seeing how many pretended that they were giving away funds out of the goodness of their hearts and from their own pocket when nothing could be further from the truth.
The only funds that a legislator can give of their own accord is their campaign account and even then it has to get reported to the state and it can only be given to certain narrowly defined recipients like a charity.
I can’t tell you how many times I would have someone call and ask for money as if it was my checkbook. It was literally almost every day.
Don’t get me wrong; there were some very good moments. I once had the opportunity to help direct some funds to one small rural elementary school that had no air conditioning in a part of its facilities. The students had A/C for the first time! Can you imagine?
But too too often it was just people with their hand out who had grown expectant, even conditioned, to the idea that legislators can give away money on a whim.
So why was it such a thing? Well, aside from the fact that folks always want more stuff (which I get by the way) it was also a direct result of many years of some legislators portraying themselves as the great benefactors wielding the ability to allocate funds to whomever and wherever they pleased. They cultivated the mindset and they used that mindset to their advantage.
There was one particular guy in my delegation who was the absolute worst. He used to show up at events with a fake giant check that had his name on it in big letters: “From the account of State Representative Blah Blah” with his signature in giant red font at the bottom. He would use a dry erase marker to fill in the amount and pose for the pictures.
I’ve been to a bunch of those ceremonies and photo ops and I’ve turned the golden shovel on the groundbreaking. But the guy with the big check? He would actually not come unless he could do a dog and pony show.
I used to drive him crazy any time I could and go to the microphone and say something like “What State Representative Blah Blah and I want you to really know is that we don’t have accounts of our own. These are your tax dollars coming home to you and we’re glad to see it happen”. It used to make him so mad.
On one occasion I learned that he was going to a school assembly and had asked to speak and essentially take credit for a grant that he and I had jointly applied for. He knew I couldn’t make it there that day and was trying to stage it just right without my usual interference. So I called the Assistant Principal who was a friend of mine and gave him a heads up.
After ol’ State Rep Blah Blah made his grand presentation, the Assistant Principal went up and said, “I spoke to Senator Williams who could not be here today and he wanted to be sure you all knew that this grant is actually your tax dollars coming home to you and that he and State Rep Blah Blah actually were just proud to sign the grant application.”
I’m told that same State Representative Blah Blah once refused to do any grants for a year because he wanted to save up to give away more in the next year. Why? Because it was an election year.
I’m a realist. I know and accept that there are funds set aside for purposes that are designed to be benevolent and to help folks. We’re told in Scripture not to grow weary in doing good. It was also said by a great theologian that it is just as possible to become prideful in doing godly things as it is in anything else.
The bottom line is that we should “just do the good.”
Just. Do. The. Good.
When we do things for others, when we seek to make our community a better place, we can achieve good results but at some point the underlying reasons for why they get done matter as well.
If we “just do the good” to call attention solely to our own benefit then we have approached it all wrong. We have abused the opportunity to "just do the good” for our own good and not for the greater good.
To be sure, there is a fine line there: a business should advertise its wares and services; one team should get the trophy because they were the champions; a soldier should get a medal for their actions; and yes, a politician can show up when that grant is announced and smile and wave and feel good that something tangible is happening with tax dollars that make someone’s life better.
But the next time you go to a school assembly, or a new park, or see the library getting a new bookshelf and your local delegation shows up, watch out for the giant check and the self-adulation. And if they fail to say it, then just politely ask: “Hey State Representative Blah Blah, or State Senator So-and-So, I understand that these funds are actually tax dollars and not from your own account. Is that true?”
Their reaction will tell you a lot about their motivation.
Just do the Good. That’s all. Just. Do. The. Good.
Phil Williams is a former State Senator, retired Army Colonel and combat veteran, and a practicing Attorney. He has served with the leadership of the Alabama Policy Institute and currently hosts Rightside Radio M-F 2-5 pm on WVNN. His column appears every Monday in 1819 News. To contact Phil or request him for a speaking engagement go to www.rightsideradio.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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