Friday, July 17, 2009

Something Isn't Kosher In Albany

Oh Yeah, Its The Pork
New Rules To Share Funds, Services, Going Forward; For Now, Majority Takes Bacon

Fundamental fairness would suggest that, when it comes to sharing the wealth among New Yorkers -- in this instance, member-item money given to State Senators and Assemblymembers, to be doled out to various constituent groups back home -- all New Yorkers (and each legislative district) should be treated equally.

That would mean, in the perfect world, that each legislator -- representing an equal number of constituents, more or less -- would get the same amount of discretionary money to spend at home.

Well, as we all know, and as it has been since time immemorial, apparently some districts, and the New Yorkers that reside within, are more equal than others.

The party controlling the chamber fills up its members' pork barrels -- or not.

So, in the Assembly, Democrats get the lion's share of funds to spend back home, at will, as do their Democratic counterparts in the Senate (a bone of major contention with Senate Republicans, who, for the past forty years, had their hands on the hog, slicing and dicing, leaving mere scraps for those across the aisle).

This year, the $85 million or so in member-item funds available in the Senate was disproportionately doled out as follows: $76.7 million to Democratic members; $8.3 million to Republican members.

This means, for one thing, that Long Island draws the short stick, the majority of its delegation being of the GOP.

More than this, it sleights New Yorkers who reside in "minority" (as in party, not ethnicity) districts, an inequity inherent in this system of pork chop politics.

It was an unfair appropriation when the Republicans did it in the Senate, and it remains an affront to every New Yorker when the Democrats continue this untoward practice.

The Albany Times Union reports that the times may be a changin' in Albany, with new rules -- arm-twisted during the recent coup -- designed, among other things, to share both funds and services more equally.

Of course, that's tomorrow. For today, it remains business as unusual at the State Capitol.

While parity should be the norm -- and we at The Community Alliance applaud this awakening -- at a time of deficits and budget gaps in Albany, and financial woes back home in the districts, couldn't we make better use of $85 million?

Perhaps the monies should go back into the pot, helping to close the gap and/or reduce the deficit.

Or maybe, instead of giving that money to the Elks lodge in Troy or the Legion hall in Buffalo, we should apportion, pro rata, the member-item funds among all homeowners, mailing checks instead of slicing bacon. Now that would be a property tax rebate that makes sense.

Let's not forget that the pork -- which surely needs to be chopped and trimmed -- consists entirely of tax dollars. That's right, the people's money.

All New Yorkers have a financial stake here, and each should be entitled to an equal portion of that pig.
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Check out member-item spending, among other State expenditures, at the Project Sunlight website.
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From The Albany Times Union:

Pork puts pressure on rules reform
Agreement signals release of money promised and in some cases spent

By RICK KARLIN, Capitol bureau

ALBANY -- Thursday morning's pre-dawn agreement to reform the rules under which the Senate operates was a bit like a college term paper completed after an all-nighter: It might receive a passing grade, but can result in frayed nerves and lots of complaining.

While senators spent much of Wednesday milling about and lamenting the state of affairs as their leaders tried to hammer out a compromise, life seemed to get back to normal on Thursday. Starting around 1 p.m., legislators debated a number of bills, complete with the usual greetings and courtesies they extend to one another.

True, they didn't quickly resolve the ongoing issue of mayoral control for New York City's schools, but lawmakers did exhibit some sense of cohesion, which suggested the new rules could bring about greater amity between the 32 Democrats and 30 Republicans.

Among the changes going forward: Senators will now find it easier to bring bills to the floor for debate, and minority Republicans will in future years get a larger share of the member-item allotments better known as pork. While this year they received a small fraction -- just $8.3 million compared to the $76.7 million that Democrats handed out -- they'll get one-third of next year's pot.

Pork allocations had been one of the major sticking points in rules reform. Republicans eager to see minority rights boosted became even more motivated to strike an agreement after concluding a resolution would also bring an end to what some saw as holdups or delays in releasing already promised member-item grants from GOP lawmakers.

"We wanted (Democrats) to live up to commitments that had already been made," GOP spokesman Scott Reif said.

Lawmakers and their staffers were hesitant to discuss the delays in detail for fear it would simply aggravate groups in their districts that had been promised funding but are still waiting. In some instances, funds allocated by lawmakers as far back as 2007 had yet to be released.
The prospect of moving the funds more quickly through the system heartened GOP lawmakers who conceded that many of the monies would be released closer to the all-important 2010 elections.

The speed of the distribution of member-item money has been a contentious issue in both legislative chambers.

In 2007, Schenectady Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco -- then the chamber's minority leader -- charged Gov. Eliot Spitzer cut $100,000 in member item funding from a health clinic in Tedisco's hometown as part of a political vendetta. The money was later restored.

Last year, the state budget crisis began to slow the disbursement of member item funds for Democrats and Republicans alike, as Gov. David Paterson instructed his Budget Division to give closer scrutiny to contracts paid by the grants.

Budget Division spokesman Jeffrey Gordon stressed that the oversight isn't designed to slow payments but merely to ensure the money is spent properly and prudently. "It's been our way of managing the state's finances," he said of the heightened oversight system, instituted in November.

Recipients of member items, though, say they've been put in financial tight spots by the apparent slowdown.

"Typically, you get the award letter, you send in the paperwork, you spend the money and you get the check," said Megan Quillinan, executive director of the Mechanicville Area Community Services Center, which this year had to borrow money to pay for upgrades to a building that would allow them to start a Pre-K program last fall.

The center's $100,000 worth of member items, sponsored by Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Wilton, eventually came through, and Quillinan said it has already been able to pay back its bank loan.
Like other Republicans, McDonald said he was encouraged that one of the reforms called for giving more member-item money to the GOP.

"They are stressing fairness," he said.

Rick Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or

Key Senate reforms
Here are some of the key Senate rules reforms that lawmakers agreed to early Thursday morning:

Officers and leaders of the Senate as well as committee chairs will be term limited to eight years.
Members will have greater ability to bring bills to a vote. For example, a bill can be taken out of committee to the "active list" for debate upon acceptance of a petition signed by 60 percent of the members (38).

Committee meetings and hearings will be recorded and Webcast, and chamber proceedings will be archived and accessible through the Web site. Additionally, senators want to set up a legislative Cable channel -- dubbed NYSPAN -- to broadcast sessions and joint hearings.

All 62 senators will have equal access to Senate services such as mail and printing, and a formula will provide satellite offices for senators with larger geographic districts so they can better represent districts.

Member items will be divided with greater equity, with Republicans getting one-third of next year's allocation.

For an interactive map of the changing distribution of Senate member-item dollars, visit Capitol Confidential at

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