Wednesday, January 03, 2007

To The Victorious Party Go The Spoils

With Hands In The Pork Barrel, Its "Majority Rules"

If you have the misfortune of residing in a district with a Democratic State Senator and a Republican Assemblymember, don't expect anyone to bring home the bacon anytime soon.

As is customary in Albany, the majority party in each house controls the member item dollars, so who gets what remains largely in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. [Both of whom were re-elected to their leadership posts today by their respective chambers. Surprise, surprise.]

So, even though your Democratic State Senator and Republican Assemblymember are elected to represent you -- and the tax dollars collected from the represented may be the same as those collected in districts represented by a Republican State Senator and a Democratic Assemblymember -- it seems that some New Yorkers are more represented than others.

The New York Times reports on what we call The Tale of Two Districts. The "who gets" versus the "who gets not."

Seems that, in Albany, with OUR tax dollars, its not quite "share, share alike."

It doesn't get any better than this, folks. And, with Silver and Bruno ruling the roost -- and doling out the millions in member item dollars -- it won't get any better this session, Day One, Two, or Day Three Hundred Sixty Five aside. . .
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Scraping the Bottom of the Albany Pork Barrel

COLLEGE CAREERS FUND OF WESTCHESTER is a small nonprofit group that helps disadvantaged youths from Port Chester, New Rochelle and White Plains get into college. This year, it received a $10,000 grant from the New York State Senate, and for that, it could consider itself lucky.

The Senate has handed out more than 7,000 grants totaling $67 million this fiscal year, but only a handful went to groups in the part of Westchester where College Careers does its work.
Not so on Long Island, where nonprofit groups are awash in taxpayer-financed Senate cash. Social service organizations, along with church youth groups, marching bands, fire departments and Little Leagues, all got grants by the dozens, usually for a lot more than $10,000. The Patchogue-Medford Football and Cheerleading Club, for instance, received a $20,000 grant for startup costs.

College Careers’ problem is not the worthiness of its endeavors, but its location: it is in the State Senate district of Suzi Oppenheimer, one of only two Democratic senators in the New York suburban region in 2006. In the penthouse-or-outhouse ways of Albany pork-barrel spending, Senator Oppenheimer, as a member of the Senate minority, had just $230,000 to distribute this year.

Over all, 35 Republican senators have distributed $60 million of the Senate’s $67 million in grants; the 27 Democrats spent the rest. (There may be one less Republican than expected next year, as a senator from Nassau County, Michael A. L. Balboni, has been selected by Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer to be his top homeland security official.)

In the Assembly, where Democrats are the majority, the split is even more one-sided: The 108 Democrats in the 150-seat Assembly distributed $49.7 million in grants this year, while the 42 Republican members handed out just $1.1 million. Sponsors of another $1.2 million could not be determined.

The nine Republican senators representing Long Island have spread more than $16 million around this year. Senator Caesar Trunzo gave more than $230,000 to ambulance and fire services alone in his district on the South Shore of Suffolk County.

The disparity illustrates some of the issues at the heart of the recent controversy over the $200 million a year that the State Legislature appropriates for discretionary spending by its members and the governor. Public interest groups have criticized the grant system as unfair and as a misuse of tax money to foster incumbency.

“It’s a slush fund that they do some good things with, and some not-so-good things,” said Rachel Leon, the executive director of Common Cause New York, a civic group. “It’s an incumbency protection program, and that’s one of the things we need to change about it.”

The grants, known as member items, have existed for years. But they were not systematically disclosed until a court challenge by The Times Union of Albany forced the Legislature to begin releasing detailed records in recent weeks. The records have revealed a system sharply tilted to the party in power.

“We guessed that the minority members got less, but we had no idea how much less,” Ms. Leon said.

In a district like Senator Oppenheimer’s, grants from Democratic Assembly members help make up part of the difference between what she is able to distribute and what Republicans give out, but they cannot close the gap entirely.

“Majority members in the Assembly could never make up the difference,” said Amy Paulin, an Assembly Democrat who represents part of Senator Oppenheimer’s district and who helped distribute $350,000 in grants this year to the senator’s district. “Senate Republicans get so many dollars that it would be impossible to do that.”

Senator Nicholas A. Spano, a Westchester Republican who lost his re-election effort last month after representing the district next to Senator Oppenheimer’s for 20 years, spent $3.74 million in member items in 2005, and some of that money has had an impact in her district. Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, for instance, which received $30,000 from Senator Spano last year, works throughout the county.

Nonprofit organizations have many other potential sources of grants besides member items. College Careers has an annual budget of $420,000, which comes from federal grants, corporate contributions and state money other than member items.

But much of the Senate money, whether distributed by Democrats or Republicans, goes to replace or to ameliorate government cuts in social services. College Careers, for instance, is a 40-year-old agency that dates to the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a federal summer-jobs program started in the 1960s and ended by President Ronald Reagan.

“We help young people get into college who may have been overlooked by the schools or feel that postsecondary education is out of their reach,” said Blanche Walker, the executive director.
Beth Hofstetter, a spokeswoman for Senator Oppenheimer, said College Careers was at the top of the senator’s list of worthy groups. “Our philosophy is to have the biggest impact with the money that we can, and we eke it out to nonprofit groups that have a wonderful impact on the lives of the people of Westchester, especially at-risk kids and families,” she said.

So, in Senator Oppenheimer’s district, the money tends to go, in small pieces, to safety-net programs for the most disadvantaged and to little else. The Open Door Family Medical Center in Port Chester, which provides medical care for the lowest of low-income, uninsured families, received $20,000, the largest grant from Senator Oppenheimer. In all, five groups each got $10,000 or more from her.

But in some districts, there is much more money to go around, and safety-net groups are not the only recipients. Senator Trunzo awarded 82 groups $10,000 or more each.

One was the Long Island Blue Jays Junior Drum and Bugle Corps of Sayville, which received $10,000. The group marches in fire department and holiday parades all over Suffolk County, and it uses the money to buy instruments. Volunteers teach young people how to play them.
“Insurance is astronomical, and instruments only last five years,” said Ralph H. Parkhill, 70, who has been playing and teaching in the band for 61 years. “A baritone bugle these days costs $1,400.”

At College Careers, Ms. Walker said that because she serves some young clients from Yonkers, she had decided to apply for money next year from the vastly better financed Senator Spano, who represents the city.

The bad news for her is that he was defeated by a Democrat, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, which could leave a big hole in the budgets of many small nonprofit groups in Westchester next year.

“We’re thrilled that a minority woman is going to represent this area,” Lindsay Farrell, the director of the Open Door Family Medical Center, said of Ms. Stewart-Cousins, who is black.

“But it’s devastating for small nonprofit organizations who were dependent on Senator Spano’s generosity.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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