Pork Product? 

New program to disperse $20 million in surplus state money.

One side says "pork barrel legislation"; the other says "community enhancement grant." Calling the whole thing off, however, is no option.

Democratic state senator Jim Kyle commenced a whistle-stop tour of a dozen libraries and community centers in the 28th District last week to inform his constituents about the $20 million budget surplus the state will disperse through community enhancement grants.

The program puts the onus on organizations to apply for the funds, rather than on politicians to choose among favorites. "We've never done it like this before," explains Kyle. "This is the middle ground for [politicians] who don't want to choose."

In May, Republican representative Brian Kelsey of Memphis waved an envelope full of bacon at the legislature in Nashville in protest of the bill and charged that the program looks like pork and smells like pork, regardless of the new guidelines.

"This is a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans," says Kyle. "They think there's something wrong with it. We think this is what we're supposed to do."

Other Republicans, though, view the program as a compromise. Mark Norris, Republican senator from Germantown, says, "We opposed other measures that weren't, shall we say, arm's length fund disbursements. This lets the [neutral] secretary of state review applications and decide."

The money is left over from franchise and excise taxes, which are imposed quarterly on for-profit businesses statewide.

"The issue came down to this, or making specific budget appropriations," Kyle says. "We thought that the better course of action was to create a pool of funds."

Applications are available on the Web site of the Tennessee Secretary of State. The grant program is open to community organizations, nonprofits, and those who can find a sponsoring organization. As of August 3rd, a variety of Shelby County organizations had applied.

LaSimba Gray, pastor of the New Sardis Baptist Church, applied for $1 million for the currently nonexistent African-American Museum. The application's stated purpose explains simply that the "funds will be used."

Other local organizations make slightly more modest requests with more specific justifications. Families of Incarcerated Individuals, a nonprofit founded in 1989 to "deter incarceration through family support," requested $4,000, with the stated purpose to "expand the program to serve more youth affected by incarceration."

Applicants have a 4 p.m. August 15th deadline. The money must be spent by next June 30th, or it will revert back to the state.

Here in the land of barbecue and weekend cookouts, "pork" and "community enhancement" now intersect in more ways than one.

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