Monday, April 06, 2009

Grant Us This Day. . .

"Member Item" Money Goes To The Victors

When the GOP controlled the NYS Senate, upwards of 80% of discretionary spending money -- the so-called member item funds -- went to Republican senators. Democrats called foul, and local projects in districts represented by Democrats got shortchanged, assuming they got anything at all. [The same principle holds true in the Assembly, where Dems have ruled the roost for decades. Assembly Democrats get the lion's share of the member-item money. Republicans get whatever scraps are left over, maybe.]

With the tide having turned in the Senate, Dems now clinging to a 32-30 margin, upwards of 80% of discretionary spending money goes to the Democrats, and the Republicans cry foul.

Is turnabout fair play? Of course not. Should all members, of both parties, in both chambers, share and share alike, at least when it comes to discretionary funds available for expenditure in the community? Absolutely.

But this is Albany, and tit-for-tat, eye-for-eye, you got yours now I'll get mine, is so engrained in New York politics, that fundamental fairness goes for naught, and when it comes to spending, let the minority be damned.

And who does this unyielding partisanship hurt? Not the Senators or Assemblymembers -- they're doing just fine, thank you. It hurts the constituents of districts represented by members in the minority of either house, which, here on Long Island, means that most communities will get less. Yes, suffer the constituents. [As if getting back a mere 25 cents for every tax dollar Long Islanders send to Albany wasn't bad enough!]

Less money for those "Main Street" revitalization projects. Fewer discretionary bucks for local public schools. Smaller grants this year to civic and community groups.

Member item spending by the NYS Legislature has always been promlematic. An unequal distribution of funds among reprsentatives elected to serve every New Yorker equally is inherently unjust.

Clearly, who gets to spend the taxpayers' money is just as important as how that money is being spent.
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From The New York Times:

Spoils of Victory in Albany Are More Funds for Pet Projects

ALBANY — Member items, which are annual legislative earmarks doled out by individual members for pet projects, are scattered throughout New York State’s budget and total $170 million. Common Cause, a group that advocates for an open, honest government, has called the items an “incumbency protection program.”

Thousands of member items are specified in this year’s budget, but much of the money is set aside in discretionary funds that can be tapped later. And there is actually more than $170 million in this year’s budget, because the Legislature uses discretionary funds left over from previous years for items in this year’s budget as well. No public official could provide the total amount of member items in the budget — it is one of Albany’s mysteries.

This year there will most likely be a big geographic shift in member-item spending. In years past, the Republican-controlled Senate poured member-item money into special projects on Long Island and upstate, its power base, while the Democratic-controlled Assembly favored New York City and its suburbs. With both chambers now controlled by New York City Democrats, the biggest losers could be upstate community groups.

Nothing about the process suggests a fair allocation of resources. The majority party in each chamber takes the largest share of the member-item money, and then the leader of the majority party in the Senate and the Assembly takes the biggest chunk and divvies up the rest, with favored or senior members typically coming out on top. A review of member-item spending by The New York Times in 2006 found that 10 of the 62 senators controlled a third of the Senate’s member-item appropriations.

The biggest culture shock this year will be for Senate Republicans, who lost their grip on the majority in last year’s elections. In years past, the former majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, would dole out roughly $6 million in member items to his constituents. This year, the entire caucus of 30 Senate Republicans is going to have to divide a little more than $8 million.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, is typically Albany’s king of earmarks — he usually hands out about $7 million in member-item money, with a big chunk going to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which is run by the husband of Mr. Silver’s chief of staff.

His control of the member-item purse strings is one of the ways he wields power over his members — he decides how much money each member gets to dole out.

“Ultimately there has to be a decision made, and it’s made by the speaker,” said Assemblyman Steven Englebright, a veteran Suffolk County Democratic lawmaker who appropriated $510,000 to an art gallery in Setauket, N.Y., to help it purchase a building when it was facing eviction.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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