Jack McEneny still loves the Capitol—but he can be forgiven for thinking it’s a little less generous these days.
The former assemblyman and unofficial historian of the Legislature retired from public office last year, telling a crowd of supporters, “I just felt it was time, and I’m glad to pass the torch” to a generation of younger politicians.
But another consideration weighed on his mind when he was deciding to step down.
Over his distinguished 20-year tenure, McEneny was considered one of the most honest elected officials in Albany, as well as one of the most giving, thanks to a budgetary policy allowing legislators to contribute small grants to community groups in their respective districts.
In 2010 he gave $395,000 to 44 organizations, including $150,000 to the Center for Disability Services; between $5,000 and $15,000 to a number of municipalities, charities and associations in greater Albany; and another $152,300 in conjunction with colleagues to four groups, among them $89,000 to the Empire Justice Center and $50,000 to the Capitol Region Local Organizing Committee.
But in 2009, then Gov. David Paterson turned off the discretionary spigot that poured legislative dollars across the state, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has continued to keep it dry through his first few years in office.
The decision has had an impact upon lawmakers, affecting, for instance, McEneny’s choice to retire.
“It was a wonderful tool—you could respond immediately with relief that no large bureaucracy could do,” he said. “I personally felt the loss of them; I felt less relevant. There’s nothing more frustrating in life than to listen to people’s problems and you know the solution but you’re tapped and you can do nothing. Most legislators are active; they don’t want to be observers—and I decided I didn’t want to be an observer.”
The Case Against Member Items
Those forbidden words in the halls of the Capitol—a phrase that legislators dare not defend before their constituents.
The term conjures corrupt visions of officials distributing political cuts of pork to local power brokers and their constituencies, who in turn support the lawmakers for re-election.
Nobody likes using the expression, even if they endorse the concept.
“I know the phrase ‘member items’ is not something that we use, but I do personally believe that members know the needs of their districts better than anybody,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said. “The ability to direct money to necessary programs in their district, to me, I think, is very important.”
Member items aren’t just impolitic; they have landed some officials in jail.
In 2009 former state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. requested $2 million in member items for a health care nonprofit he founded. Three years later he was found guilty of swindling more than $400,000 from the organization.
This year former state Sen. Shirley Huntley pleaded guilty to stealing $87,000 from a Queens education nonprofit that received government funds she had earmarked and then using the cash on a personal shopping spree.
“Unfortunately some legislators have shown they cannot be trusted with member items, and they’ve tarnished it for the whole class,” said Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who, since she first assumed office in 2011, has never had the opportunity to request member items. “I’m not a big proponent of [them]. We need to crack down on misuses.”
The abuses led some legislators to call for a permanent ban on the practice at the end of last session.
“Given the recent controversies and accusations over the illegal use of member item funds, now is the time to permanently do away with this system that lacks oversight and fairness,” Assemblywoman Sandy Galef said.
But others say that a few corrupt lawmakers shouldn’t spoil a practice that does good in their communities.
“The speaker is in favor of doing it with the maximum amount of oversight possible,” Assemblyman Joe Lentol said. “These people were caught doing the wrong thing, but there’s going to be more care by the people who watch the process, to make sure everything is done more carefully.”
Discretionary Funds With Discretion
State Sen. Tony Avella is worried about several senior centers and community organizations in northeast Queens that could fold without support from the state.
One of those groups, the Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Civic Association, runs a senior center in a state armory that charges close to $30,000 a month in rent. Avella argues that these groups depend on support from both local governments and the state—but the governor’s office has not devoted enough attention to helping smaller organizations survive.
“I’ve told the governor’s people I understand the negative aspects of discretionary funds and how they’ve been abused by lawmakers—but put in protections, put in more oversight, have more than one person on an official review process and don’t put just one lawmaker in charge,” he said. “We have to bring the money back.”
It’s a refrain heard around the Capitol.
“Member items impact people on the ground, and we can’t starve people on the ground,” said state Sen. Eric Adams. “No one knows better about the services needed in the community than the representative in that community. Let the judicial system deal with the abuses of it.”
And groups receiving the funds say the money is invaluable to their bottom lines.
“For smaller organizations, member items were pretty valuable toward providing vital funds for some community groups, which don’t have development staff,” said Daniel Tietz, the executive director of AIDS Community Research Initiative of America.
But good-government leaders say that small organizations should not be receiving large amounts of money from one legislator—no matter how well the lawmaker knows the district.
“We certainly don’t want member items to be renewed in the same way as in the past,” Common Cause New York Executive Director Susan Lerner said. “We don’t believe taxpayer dollars should be doled out on the whims of any sole elected official. They function all too frequently as a political honey pot.”
Legislators allocated nearly $200 million in the last year they were allowed member items, but the governor’s 2013–14 fiscal year discretionary budget dwarfs that amount 15 times over.
Gov. Cuomo is quick to parse the difference between how the Legislature spent the money and how his office doles it out. His office primarily disperses about $3 billion in funding through independent groups called Regional Economic Development Councils that determine how to spend government dollars throughout the state.
“A member item is discretionary spending, I believe, because it is allocated by the Assembly,” Cuomo said. “It’s really not my discretion. It’s the discretion of the Regional Economic Development Council—which has to be judged and approved by a government agency. So I really think it’s apples and oranges.”
But legislators worry that the governor is merely consolidating executive power through the budget.
“The greater issue is [that] the budget is a document written by the governor in conjunction with the Legislature, and this governor increasingly has put the process of funding at his discretion and we have no say over it,” Assemblyman Micah Kellner said.
In response to Cuomo’s contention that revitalizing the state’s economy requires not just a top-down but also a bottom-up approach, some legislators argue that having small grants distributed locally by lawmakers would help spur the governor’s desired grassroots revival.
“I don’t care how the money gets to [community based organizations],” Assemblyman Ron Kim said. “If the governor wants to have oversight of that process, he should at least ensure local members are involved. We’re the experts on what is happening on the ground.”
Kim shouldn’t hold his breath.
Cuomo said that he is “open to everything” during budget negotiations, but Senate Republicans have cautioned that it is “too early to discuss” member items in the 2013–14 budget, and reinstating them does not appear to be a priority.
“I don’t miss them,” state Sen. Tom Libous said. “As long as I can work with the governor to get assistance for the Southern Tier, we will keep doing that.”
Some lawmakers, including Assemblyman Rafael Espinal, who has declared his intention to run for the New York City Council, have already made the decision to pursue pork distribution elsewhere. If Espinal wins, he can expect to hand out at least $200,000 to $300,000 to community groups in his impoverished East Brooklyn district.
“I’m all for member items,” Espinal said. “That’s one of the upsides of being in the City Council. You have projects you need to get done in your community, and without access to this funding it makes it tougher to get these projects done.”
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Common Cause, Daniel Tietz, eric adams, Jack McEneny, joe-lentol, member items, Micah Kellner, Nicole Malliotakis, Pedro Espada, Rafael Espinal, Ron Kim, Sandy Galef, shirley huntley, Susan Lerner, Tom Libous, Tony Avella