A single sentence in this year’s state budget intended to help fund member items was also responsible for holding up roughly $20 million in federal aid to the state Conservation Fund, letters from the Cuomo administration’s legal counsel show.
Earlier this month the Cuomo administration quietly resolved the problem without amending the state’s budget, resolving in letters to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that money for fish and wildlife conservation programs would not be used for any other purpose.
The sentence, added into the budget sometime between late February and late March, allowed the state budget director to sweep money from the Conservation Fund, up to $38 million, into the Community Projects Fund, the account that funds member items.
The offending section authorizes the state comptroller to transfer “at the request of the director of the budget, up to $38 million from the unencumbered balance of any special revenue fund or account, or combination of to the community projects fund.”
The federal Department of the Interior and the USFWS were already working with the Cuomo administration to ensure the conservation fund money was safe, and by February, they had hammered out an agreement, striking out problems in the budget text. But sometime between February and late March, when the budget was passed, the member items language found its way into the final bill, which suggests either the Legislature added it without the administration’s notice, or that the language was the product of a last-minute agreement.
The Cuomo administration was able to resolve the problem after the legislative session ended, without having to issue a message of necessity to amend the budget, by writing letters to the USFWS promising not to transfer the funds.
“I will not request the transfer of funds from the Environmental Conservation Fund to the General Fund in fiscal year 2012-13,” state budget director Bob Megna wrote to Cuomo counsel Mylan Denerstein on June 25, 2012.
“We will also consult with you about any language associated with next year’s executive budget to the extent it may pertain to the transfer of money from the Environmental Conservation Fund to the General Fund,” Assistant Counsel Rob Rosenthal wrote to John Organ, the Northeast Region division chief of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration.
Organ said the problem is one that happens across the country, as legislators see money in a fund and try to figure out how they can use it elsewhere in cash-strapped state budgets.
“I deal with this almost on a weekly basis it seems,” he said. “Whether I have to go down to testify before a legislature, or write a strongly worded letter. As you get new legislators and new administrations coming in, they don’t like dedicated funds, and they see it and want to figure out how they can get access to that.”
“In order to get the money, states have to protect the assets of the program. That has been the most important legacy of this program — it’s ensured that there is sufficient funding to manage and conserve fish and wildlife,” Organ said.
Here are the letters from the Cuomo administration promising not to use the grant funding for anything besides its intended purpose:
Cuomo Administration Mail to USFWS
NYPIRG analyst Bill Mahoney guessed the culprit was the legislature, although he couldn’t be sure.
“Member items have been for a long time seen as one of the key components of the reelection effort, so it makes sense that they would make any attempt to get their hands on this funding,” he said.
“Since so much of the budget is done behind closed doors, we have no way of knowing how this played out,” he added.
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