The New York Times Reports On "Pork" For Private Lodges, And Chopped Liver For At Least One Synagogue
Albany Leadership Puts Taxes Into Pet Projects and Private Clubs
By MICHAEL COOPER
ALBANY, April 3 — The taxpayers of New York State, it turns out, subsidize private hunting clubs. The state allocated $50,000 to repair the leaky roof of one such club near Albany, in the district of the powerful Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno. And the state borrowed $200,000 to install air-conditioning and fix up another hunting club on Long Island that is championed by powerful lawmakers.
New York taxpayers have also been committed to spending nearly a million dollars in recent years to spruce up baseball fields in the districts of key lawmakers, including $250,000 to renovate a ball field in the district of Senator Dean G. Skelos of Long Island. The state even agreed to put $250,000 toward a "flight-worthy B-17" that Gov. George E. Pataki authorized for the American Airpower Museum on Long Island.
These allocations — which state officials call "member items" or "economic development funds" and critics call pork — do not appear anywhere in the state budget. Instead, they are listed as lump sums to be divided later in secret by the three men who control state government: Governor Pataki, a Republican; Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and Senator Bruno, the Republican majority leader.
And, even in flush times, most of the money for these projects is borrowed, adding $1.7 billion since 1997 to the state's debt load, which the comptroller's office says has surpassed $48.2 billion, not counting the borrowing of the state's public authorities, some of which finance the capital projects.
Most of the recipients of the money appear to be worthwhile causes of some sort: charities, nonprofit groups, or cultural organizations that serve a public purpose. But critics say that the general secrecy of the process, the fact that it is often driven by politics, and the fact that members of the majority party in each legislative house control who gets what raise questions about the fairness of the spending and whether more worthy causes are shortchanged.
Just how the leaders divide the largess has long been one of Albany's best-kept secrets. The budget that was passed last week allocates $200 million to be spent from Community Projects Fund-007, but does not say what it will be spent on. It simply says it will be "subject to a memorandum of understanding" between the governor's budget director, the secretary of the Senate Finance Committee, and the secretary of the Assembly's Ways and Means Committee, which means the leaders get to choose.
The budget also authorized using even more borrowed money for unspecified projects next year.
But two reports examining the spending, based on data that the state provided under the Freedom of Information Law, have shed new light on its magnitude and breadth. The Center for Governmental Research, a nonprofit policy organization based in Rochester, recently published an analysis of the $1.7 billion for pet projects that the state has borrowed and allocated since 1997, along with a list of the beneficiaries, at www.cgr.org.
And on Monday, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, which is affiliated with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative group, released a list of the other major source of what it calls the state's pork-barrel spending — a look at the $479 million in funds that have been allocated over the last three years as member items in the budget. The group put the lists of those expenditures up on its Web site, www.empirecenter.org.
Their lists show what the state allocated, but in some cases, they said, some of the money may not have been spent yet.
"It's bad government, because the grants are not based on any known criteria," said Edmund J. McMahon, the executive director of the Empire Center. "There are no performance guidelines, there is no application process, and at the end, we don't even know if the money was spent on what it was supposed to be spent."
The Center for Governmental Research found geographic discrepancies in how the money is spent. It found that while two counties, Albany and Dutchess, received about $1,000 worth of capital money a resident, some 40 other counties received less than $100 a person. New York City's share was $29 a person.
The center's report highlighted a number of unusual allocations, including $300,000 to build 10 new hangars for an airport in Akron, in western New York, that is run by a group called the Christian Airmen. The group's Web site says that one of its purposes is to "evangelize in the aviation community."
Among the other allocations were at least $190,000 to renovate lodges of the Order of the Sons of Italy in Nassau County and Yonkers and thousands of dollars for Elks lodges around the state.
The state also gave $3,000 to the Stuyvesant High School Alumni Association. Religious organizations get state aid, too, with more than $1 million going to restore the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany and $50,000 allocated to help a Long Island synagogue develop a library.
New York's secrecy about the expenditures is unusual. Sometimes lawmakers seeking re-election — or the governor — send out press releases to brag about the money, or cite it at ribbon cuttings in their districts. But state officials have never volunteered the lists of projects as a whole.
Mr. McMahon noted that while members of Congress are debating whether their process for funneling money to pet projects, known as earmarking, is open enough, the federal government at least requires disclosure of each project in Congressional reports that accompany legislation. In Albany, by contrast, the member items are kept secret. The Empire Center's lists, released by the state, do not say exactly what the money is for or even which official requested it.
It was not always so. Mr. Silver, the Assembly speaker, said the budget used to list the items one by one. "What we found was the governor vetoed the Democratic member items and didn't veto the Republican member items," he said. "So the Little League uniforms of Republican members was appropriate and important and the Little League uniforms of Democratic members were not appropriate and not important."
John E. McArdle, a spokesman for Senator Bruno, said that the $50,000 allocation for the upstate hunting club, the Brunswick Sportsman's Club, was to repair the roof. "It met all the criteria of the program," Mr. McArdle said.
The other hunting club that got state money, the Peconic River Sportsman's Club in Manorville on Long Island, notes on its Web site that while it is private, it takes pains to keep strong community ties through programs with the state. It also notes that the club played host to 107 people attending the Republican National Convention in 2004.
"We were advised that many of the politicians that participated thoroughly enjoyed seeing the symbol of the Republican Party hanging over our fireplace," the site said.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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Media hype and hyperbole aside, a thorough review of said member item spending reveals that the "pork" is more often spent by our state legislators to build bridges in the community, rather than in building bridges to nowhere. Indeed, where would our civic associations, youth organizations, and groups that benefit the public good be without that little extra they may get through discretionary member items awarded (typically via a formal application process) during each legislative session?
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with a State Senator's appropriation of $250,000 to renovate a ball field in his hometown, provided that other communities within the district in which he is elected to represent are afforded like gratuity, so that public monies are distributed on an equitable basis.
That said, $300,000 to build hangars at an airport run by a group bent on evangelizing the aviation community? $190,000 to renovate lodges of the Order of the Sons of Italy?
Come now. We think that such public monies -- and "pork" similarly doled out with no apparent (or even remote) public benefit -- could be better spent elsewhere. Say, in bringing New York into compliance with the Help America Vote Act by replacing the State's antiquated lever voting machines.
All tallied and told, the legislative member item is a good thing. Full disclosure and transparency related to such monetary awards is even better!
Click HERE to read the report of NYS Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, FISCAL REFORM FOR NEW YORK STATE, Improving Accountability, Transparency and Fiscal Responsibility.