Wednesday, November 29, 2006

So THAT'S Where Our Tax Dollars Went!

Info On Member Item Pork Trickles Out Of Albany

The New York Times and the Associated Press both had stories this week about the fabled, and now infamous secret spending of our State Legislators, reporting publicly, for the first time, on how much of your tax dollars went where and to whom as "member item" grants.

The Assembly, controlled by the Democrats, was heavy on the pork, and even Sheldon Silver (who keeps Kosher, at least back on the Lower East Side), was seen bringing home the bacon.

Over in the Senate chambers, ruled by the Republicans, you can be sure that Joe Bruno & Company will be seen as having wrestled down a few of those pigs ("pulled pork, anyone?") when the Senate's member item grant data is released sometime in December.

The problem is not one of party, but rather, of a system that operates out of the public eye and without oversight, self-imposed or otherwise.

Clearly, the leadership of both houses are like kids in a candy store, grabbing handfuls of jaw breakers and what used to be penny candy but now, with interest, cost us, the taxpayer, $1.99.

Mind you, much of this "pork" is good -- mighty tasty, even. Nothing wrong, in the least, in funding museums, civic projects, and initiatives that benefit the entire community.

In fact, not one of the items listed in the articles that follow -- save, perhaps, $2000 for a Doll and Toy Museum and $1000 for a monument to sand workers -- strikes us as imprudent.

It is the "behind closed doors" process, and a total lack of accountability that concern us, things we hope will go by the wayside as member items come out of the closet and into public view.

Hmmm. $386,000 to the Chinese-American Planning Council? That's an awful lot of spare ribs!

We wonder if there's any money in the member item pot for community-minded blogs?
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Assembly lists its pork projects
Associated Press Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- New Yorkers just paid for an exercise program for senior citizens in Tuckahoe, endowed a chair in labor studies in New York City, and funded teleconference visits with prisoners near Rochester.

It's all part of the pork-barrel spending over the last four years released late Monday by the Assembly. [Click HERE to see Assembly Reports.]

The projects are for social services, prison programs, senior citizens centers, arts programs and more all directed to local groups in lawmakers' home districts. But they add up to more than $200 million a year in spending, more going to majority party lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly.

Good-government groups have said the spending, which they call "pork," is often used to buy votes and to perpetuate the power of incumbents in Albany where the vast majority of lawmakers win re-election.

But now, for the first time, New Yorkers can see which lawmakers bestowed the taxpayers' largesse on which local projects.

A week ago, the Republican-led Senate posted the names of lawmakers and the pork barrel projects they sponsored the past two fiscal years.

A state judge last month ordered leaders of the state Legislature to disclose the names of lawmakers who decide how $170 million in taxpayer money is spent on pet projects in their home districts.

Details of the grants - which include money for museums, charities, schools and other causes - were posted on the Senate's web site Wednesday under "Senate Reports." The list includes thousands of grants along with the lawmaker who requested the funding in fiscal years 2003-2004 and 2004-2005. Information on more years will be posted later, according to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno's office.

The Assembly's thousands of projects include:
-$1.62 million for bilingual economic development and outreach in New York City.
-$800,000 for homeless outreach in New York City.
-$309,000 to the State University of New York at Buffalo for construction to comply with "gender equity requirements" in sports programs.
-$100,000 to establish the Betty Shabazz Chair at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York to be "a platform for addressing adversity and empowering victims of violence."
-$500,000 to enhance worker education program and fund faculty in labor studies at CUNY.
-$5,000 for Bobbi and the Strays, a pet adoption service in Ozone Park.
-$15,000 for a sewer project at the Yates County Fairgrounds.
-$229,000 for academics and career counseling for prison inmates.
-$131,000 for a parenting and visitation program for women inmates at Albion prison and to support teleconference visits for prisoners' families.
-$25,000 for the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce in Queens.
-$35,000 to revitalize the Norwood Shopping District in the Bronx.
-Hundreds of thousands of dollars in individual grants to aid several local programs to provide alternatives to prison for drug offenders.
-$1,000 to the Tuckahoe Senior Citizens for a weekly exercise program.
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Assembly Lists Recipients of Funds for Pet Projects

ALBANY, Nov. 27 — The New York State Assembly made public its full list of pet legislative projects late Monday afternoon, giving taxpayers the clearest view yet of how lawmakers have spent $85 million a year on thousands of local initiatives that critics have derided as pork-barrel spending.

The Assembly, which has long resisted releasing details about such spending, disclosed the list under order from a State Supreme Court judge who ruled last month in a lawsuit brought by The Times Union of Albany.

The release of the material did not end the legal battle over the information. A lawyer for the Hearst Corporation, the publisher of The Times Union, said Monday night that the format was so cumbersome and unmanageable that the company would return to court if the Assembly did not provide the information in a way that would be easier to analyze.

“It’s not usable, readable information,” said Eve Burton, a lawyer for Hearst. “It’s not data the way the court ordered it, so that consumers can use it. If they do not comply immediately with usable data, we’re going back to the judge to seek relief.”

“There is a deliberate attempt not to provide the public with the information,” she added.
The computer files made available by the Assembly included thousands of pages listing various projects, but the files were configured in a way that prevents them from being searchable without considerable technical processing.

Charles Carrier, a spokesman for the Democrats who control the Assembly, said he was not aware of any problems.

Each year, the Legislature sets aside $200 million for such projects — $85 million for the Assembly, $85 million for the Senate and $30 million for the governor. The projects, known as member items, have been criticized by budget watchdogs because there is no public debate on how useful they are, there is little accounting for how the money is spent, and the system allows
the leaders to keep members in the dark about who they are favoring.

Member items are also a basic tool used by the legislative leaders to enforce loyalty in their parties and to protect vulnerable members. Defiant lawmakers are routinely given smaller amounts, while endangered incumbents often get larger ones. Watchdog groups say the leaders’ tightly controlled allocation of the $200 million stifles democracy.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from Manhattan, has been extremely reluctant to reveal how his chamber spends money for local initiatives, and part of the reason was clear enough after the Assembly’s list was released. Mr. Silver, who controls the chamber’s purse strings, doled out far more money for such projects than any of his Assembly colleagues: More than $7 million in the current fiscal year, of the more than $50 million that the Assembly has already earmarked, was for Mr. Silver alone.

In the current fiscal year, he put money into Jewish and Chinese groups that are key constituents in his Lower East Side district, including three items for a total of nearly half a million dollars to the United Jewish Council of the East Side, $100,000 to the Museum of Jewish Heritage and three items totaling $386,000 to the Chinese-American Planning Council.

“These are important organizations that are involved in civic and community and cultural work,” Mr. Carrier said.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Republican, has also been reluctant to release a central list of the projects his members’ finance, but his staff has said he will not do so until next month, in a response to the judge’s ruling.

Over all, Assembly-financed projects for the current fiscal year ranged from millions of dollars in legal aid to the poor to an array of oddities, with the majority Democrats claiming most of the funds. Assemblyman Darrel J. Aubertine, a Democrat from northern New York, gave $10,000 to replace aging wire mesh on a mountain lion’s cage at a state zoo in Watertown.

Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman, a Democrat from Brooklyn, provided $2,000 for the Doll and Toy Museum of New York City, located in Brooklyn. Assemblyman Tom Kirwan, a Republican from Newburgh, gave $2,500 to repair a church boiler.

On Long Island, Assemblyman Thomas P. DiNapoli, a Democrat, provided $1,000 for a monument to the sand miners local workers who unearthed the sand used in New York City sidewalks.

Most of the grants were to well-known institutions and popular causes — cancer and AIDS charities, Little Leagues, town halls and fire departments — though the amounts of money each received often seemed to be proportional to the clout of their sponsoring legislators, rather than need.

Mr. Carrier said two-thirds of the Assembly majority’s member items were used to offset cuts to programs made by Gov. George E. Pataki in his budget proposal.

The move on Monday by the Assembly came after legislative leaders have fought for years to keep such spending secret. Legislators individually publicize many of the projects because they want credit for them back home, and there are ways to gain access to some of the information. But lacking central lists of all the thousands of projects, it has been difficult to track how public money is used for local initiatives.

In June, the Hearst Corporation sued the leaders of the majority parties in the Senate and Assembly after they refused to turn over records of their member items, despite requests filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. By contrast, the minority leaders in both chambers, and the staff of Governor Pataki, complied with similar requests.

As recently as the 1990s, member items were delineated in the budget itself, though without the names of the sponsoring legislators. That ended after Mr. Silver accused Mr. Pataki of singling out Democratic items for veto. Legislative leaders have been extremely reluctant to make them fully public, in part because it would mean that their members could compare and contrast how much each one of them gets.

In October, Justice Robert A. Sackett of State Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature must reveal how the money is spent. In his decision, Justice Sackett said the Legislature had “failed to articulate a rational basis for redacting the names,” adding, “the public has a right to know.”

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