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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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The Barrel

In the current New York State budget, at least 559 organizations in Nassau County were granted “member items.” These are grants added to the budget by legislators in support of local programs and include Little Leagues, ethnic fraternities, church groups and special districts. Some call it “pork.”

I don’t like calling it “pork” (short for “pork barrel spending”) partly because one district’s budget lard is the next district’s pet project. Projects, amounts and sponsors are now made public, so the New York system is really more like the “earmarks” used in Congress. Traditional budget pork usually has an air of semi-secrecy about its sponsor, source and purpose.

Member items have been called “personal philanthropy with other people’s money.” Many legislators also dispense tens of thousands of dollars a year to local groups from their campaign funds, usually in the form of tickets and journal ads, which is a different side of that coin. It’s another way that incumbent legislators are transformed into community investments.

The legislature budgets $170 million for legislative additions, split evenly between the Senate and Assembly (less 12.5 percent this year due to the recent deficit reduction plan). Legislative party leaders allocate blocks of that money to individual legislators and also to several geographic, racial and ethnic legislative caucuses. The differences between those in the majority and minority parties, and between the favored and less favored, have been striking. The Senate, as part of its 2009 circus, adopted rules that will allocate no more than two-thirds of member items to the majority party as of the next budget, but until then majority Democrats receive 91 percent.

The Senate and Assembly now release lists of legislative member items, but there are a few websites that allow easier analysis of the data (seethroughny.org, allows you to download the lists as a spreadsheet).

In the context of a $130 billion state budget, $170 million isn’t much. But it plays a role in propping up a larger legislative system that no longer works for many New Yorkers. Over the past two budgets, 53 percent of all 18,286 legislative budget additions have been for $5,000 or less, and hundreds of Long Island groups receive between $1,000 and $2,000. It’s questionable if some of these small grants are accomplishing a lot, other than sending a publicly-financed calling card from the legislator.

Over the years, some legislators have come to see these “Community Projects” as a headache, with the potential to dissatisfy and disappoint local leaders. Back in the 1990s, a few lawmakers handed off funding choices to citizen advisory committees, or emphasized to groups that this was temporary, emergency aid for a year or two. Unfortunately, too many legislators now employ mass communication to remind constituents to get those applications in. They show up to public meetings to deliver checks and pose. Several seem to automatically put in items for every PTA, fire department or public library in their district. Some programs have been getting help for decades, while similar programs inexplicably are left out.

Last year, seven Members of Assembly, mostly Republicans with Tea Party groups active in their districts, refused to participate in the process, citing the budget crisis. Last month, three Assembly Democrats from Westchester swore off member items. Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, who for several years has told local groups she doesn’t do member items, sponsors a bill that would probit legislators from distributing or advertising their grants within 60 days of Election Day. More legislators, realizing that the $8 billion projected state budget deficit will likely wipe out a lot of their member items anyway, will probably sign on to reform efforts that have stalled or gone backwards for decades.

Many of these programs and projects are worthy of public support, and it’s in the interests of the state that assistance be given. But there should be straight-forward funding programs, without need of legislative largesse or partisanship.

You can’t eliminate the personal whims, interests or influences of individual legislators, but we shouldn’t have a system that’s completely built around them.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net