Member items, like zombies in a horror film, have risen from the dead.
Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s promise before he was elected to end the practice, more than $17 million worth of new member-item contracts have been approved since he took office, and the Legislature is set to spend $105 million on pork over the next year.
Cuomo promised to eradicate member items when he was elected, and while he was able to stop the Legislature from adding more than $85 million for new member items to last year’s budget, he wasn’t able to end them entirely. In fact, he even plans to give school districts $10 million in similar funds himself.
Since Cuomo took office, the Legislature has steadily continued spending more than $136 million it had allocated to its members in prior budget years, placed into something called the “Community Projects Fund.”
During his term as attorney general and his campaign for governor, Cuomo promised to make several changes to the member-items process.
In his 2010 campaign platform he said one of his priorities was “[i]mposing tough standards and procedures that mandate transparency and fairness, and ban[ning] the kinds of conflicts of interest that have resulted in so much abuse. If the Legislature ignores the process, those member items will be vetoed.”
Cuomo also promised to “forbid conflicts of interest in granting member items,” and also increase transparency before awards were made, making public the amount of the member item, the names of the recipient and the sponsoring legislator before the budget was approved, fully itemizing each piece within the budget.
During the Cuomo administration there have been no new deposits from the general fund into the community projects fund, and the legislature has not been given any new appropriation authority, said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the Division of Budget.
But the governor does not have the ability to abrogate the spending power the Legislature granted itself in prior years, Peters said, so he can’t stop newer grants from being spent. As long as lawmakers have money in the community projects fund, he said, they can continue to make good on the commitments they made.
The Assembly Majority has $68 million to spend, the governor has $29 million, the Senate majority has $4 million and each of the minority conferences has less than $10 million.
After the Cuomo administration initially failed to end the process of member items altogether, it said the leftover money would only go toward the fulfillment of existing grant obligations.
But records from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office show that 127 brand-new grants have been approved since January 1, 2011, including $152,000 for the Ridgewood Seniors Community Corporation; $20,000 for Gan Yisroel, a summer camp for Orthodox Jewish children; $20,000 to the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities; $225,000 to Vaad Haakol Crown Heights; $50,000 to the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty; $19,780 to the Ridgewood Local Development Company and $20,000 to the Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.
Member items have long been controversial. Under Gov. George Pataki’s administration the amount of money the Legislature appropriated to fund the items swelled, and by 2006 the Legislature was appropriating itself $200 million to fund pork projects, distributed through an opaque “memorandum of understanding” between the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.
Good-government groups decried the practice, both because there was no way to know which lawmaker requested which grant, and because the money was distributed unevenly based on the whims of the legislative leaders.
Many lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, defend pork projects, because they fund small, worthy causes that might otherwise be overlooked. Silver called for funding for member items to be renewed this year, too.
“The speaker believes individual Assembly members know their districts best, and there are many organizations which are doing the work of government that have been cut in recent years,” said Assembly majority spokesman Michael Whyland.
But after Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin was indicted and jailed for embezzling $95,000 in member items he granted to a Little League team, the furor over the practice peaked. In 2007 Cuomo, then the attorney general, partnered with the New York Public Interest Research Group’s then-Legislative Director Blair Horner to create Project Sunlight, a database of information on the items.
The database listed member items by their sponsor, and the exposure of potential conflicts of interest decreased the number of grants being funneled to groups or projects employing the friends and relatives of sitting lawmakers.
But in the 14 months since Cuomo became governor, Project Sunlight has lain dormant, even as spending continues—marking a return to opacity.
That too is about to change. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is planning to relaunch Project Sunlight under a new name, said a source close to the project.
What is uncertain is whether member items will ever return to their former prominence in the Legislature. Though Cuomo has not funded them, the Community Projects Fund still exists—and when the money runs out, a new governor may see fit to fill the fund’s coffers again.
Whyland would not say whether Silver would seek reinstatement of pork projects when the money runs out entirely.
Tags: Albany, Andrew Cuomo, assembly, Attorney General, Blair Horner, brian-mclaughlin, budget, City and State, Community Projects fund, Eric Schneiderman, Gan Yisroel, governor, Laura Nahmias, Legislature, majority, member items, Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, Michael Whyland, minority, New York, New York Public Interest Research Group, pork, Project Sunlight, Ridgewood Local Development Company, Ridgewood Seniors Community Corporation, Senate, Sheldon Silver, Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, Vaad Haakol Crown Heights
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