With ex-Sen. Vinnie Leibell facing jail time for tax evasion
and obstruction of justice related to money directed to a non-profit founded
with member item money, Assembly Member Sandy Galef seized
the moment to push for reforms to the legislative pork barrel process. Galef
says her plan would end corruption and prevent future lawmakers from gaming the
Some of her colleagues, though, are less than thrilled by
her calls for an overhaul.
“In the community that I represent, non-profit organizations
are a part of the fabric of our community and play an important part,” said
Assembly Member Karim Camara, a Brooklyn Democrat. “ I agree there are problems
with member items, but the answer is not to outright prohibit them but to
increase the transparency around them.”
Galef, who refuses to accept member items herself, is not
calling for an outright ban on legislative pork. She wants to prohibit legislators
from using state funds to establish private not-for-profits, a practice she
says allowed Leibell and others to line their wallets with state dollars.
Camara said he prefers Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo’s
proposal, which would have the attorney general and a state commission
investigate and regulate member item fraud and abuses.
But Galef’s proposal has the support of Assembly Minority
Leader Brian Kolb, who argued it would go a long way toward ending what he
called a “hornet’s nest” situation in Albany.
“This was a question with Pedro Espada as well. The same
thing with Vito Lopez,” Kolb said. %uFFFD%uFFFD
State Sen. Jose M. Serrano, who co-sponsored Galef’s bill in
the Senate, said the measure would “move the ball down the field,” but stopped
short of calling for the complete abolishment of discretionary spending.
“Member items, when done properly can really help groups
that wouldn’t have the funds otherwise,” said Serrano, who also declined his
own member items last year. “If they are used properly, they can really help
the community by funding groups that do a lot of good.”
State Sen. Shirley Huntley said she would never sponsor a
bill to end all member items, but would vote for one if “the rest of the Senate
was doing it.” Huntley also took issue with Gov. David Paterson’s decision to
veto member items in this year’s budget, only to ultimately authorize $17
million of his own approved spending.%uFFFD
“I’m extremely offended that the governor took a large
amount of money to give out his own member items that have been allotted to
organizations that already have money,” said Huntley. “There are child care
facilities that are closing because of this.”
Huntley has her own history on the issue, having steered
member item dollars to non-profits run by Ruben Wills, a staffer at the time
who was elected to the City Council in November.
The issue of discretionary spending may be a moot point,
though, as many lawmakers predicted that the state’s financial woes would
preclude member items from making it into next year’s budget too.
“Member items at this time, coming up this year, it’s ridiculous
to even discuss,” said State Sen. Marty Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, while
noting that he was open to the concept behind Galef’s proposal. “It’s a bad
economy, people are losing jobs, so I’m one of those guys who believes that
member items don’t work in this environment.”
With additional reporting by Chris Bragg, Laura Nahmias
and Isha Mitra
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