The newly adopted state budget for 2006-07 includes a $200 million lump-sum appropriation for "services and expenses, grants in aid, or for contracts with certain not-for-profit agencies, universities, colleges, school districts, corporations, and/or municipalities."
The phrase is New York's budgetary euphemism for what is known in Washington, D.C., and other state capitals as "pork" or "earmarks." In Albany terminology, these kinds of expenditures are known as "member items."
The annual member-item allocation is divided among the two houses of the Legislature ($85 million each) and the governor ($30 million). Until the late 1990s, the items were routinely listed in budget bills or in legislative reports--which is how the rest of world came to know about state subsidies for projects like the state Museum of Cheese.
But in more recent years, the grants have been lumped together in a single appropriation, funded out of a special "Community Projects-007" account, and distributed according to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) executed by the governor, the Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker.
Under the current allocation system, no comprehensive list of projects is released. New York State's pork-barrel MOU list has not been readily available for widespread public scrutiny.
Based on a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed with the governor's Budget Division, the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy has obtained complete lists of member items for each of the past three years. The documents amount to 1,154 pages, listing 22,980 individual grants totaling just over $479 million. They have been converted into three separate "pdf" files that can be opened with Adobe Acrobat Reader software.
To download one or more of the annual lists, click on the links below:
* 2003 (439 pages, 1.4 MB)
* 2004 (375 pages, 1.1 MB)
* 2005 (340 pages, 1.0 MB)
What you'll find -- and what's missing
For each member-item grant, the lists include:
* the name of the organization or program receiving the money,
* the amount of the grant,
* the date the grant received Budget Division "certification," which authorizes money to be spent out of the appropriation,
* the "account" authorizing the grant (identified as governor, the Senate, or the Assembly), and
* the agency administering the funds.
Missing from the list are such details as the purpose for which the grant has been awarded and the name of the legislator sponsoring a Senate or Assembly request. While many grants will end up being publicized by legislative news releases, neither house releases the internal forms used to request member items; nor does the governor release more detailed information on explaining his own items.
In the absence of such information, a team of researchers would need months to follow up on the thousands of FOIL requests necessary to conduct a comprehensive review of each member-item expenditure. Since legislators generally seek to bring home pork to their own districts, it's not to hard to guess at the source of items designated for specific towns, cities or villages, or for non-profit groups named after the communities they serve.
Pending further analysis, a quick perusal of the list reveals that groups serving senior citizens, veterans and children (including 83 Little League grants in 2005 alone) remain popular objects of member-item funding. The Office of Children and Families was assigned to administer the most grants in 2005--1,566 out of a total of 6,798 grants for that year. Department of State was assigned to administer the second-largest number--1,036 grants, mostly for municipalities.
Of course, the Community Projects member-item fund isn't Albany's only discretionary pork-barrel account. Individual appropriations motivated by the political priorities of the two majority legislative conferences--Republican in the Senate and Democrat in the Assembly--are salted throughout the budget. Moreover, the last decade has seen the emergence of a whole new category of what's become known as "capital pork": economic development projects financed by state bonds.
A report itemizing such projects and showing how they are distributed on a regional basis was issued recently by the Center for Governmental Research. The best in-depth analysis of capital pork was published in an October 2004 series in the Syracuse Post Standard.
Calls for reform
In a January 2006 report, state Comptroller Alan Hevesi noted that over $1 billion in the 2005-06 budget, including a $200 million member-item appropriation, was divvied up through MOUs between the governor and legislative leaders. Among other accountability reforms, Hevesi has proposed requiring that the intended recipients of lump sum appropriations be identified at the time of enactment and that quarterly reports be issued on lump-sum allocations. Senate Democrats have also proposed mandatory disclosure of MOU details.
These proposals would represent an improvement, as far as they go, but more reform is needed to ensure true accountability and transparency. Assuming that politically motivated pork-barrel spending will persist no matter how much is done to discourage it, additional sunshine proposals would include the following:
* State grant awards should be based on clear program criteria and linked to performance standards set forth in enabling legislation.
* Member items shall be made as individual line-items in the budget.
* Grant contracts should be awarded on a competitive basis, and should require some level of matching funding from the recipient.
* Contractual details for all grants--including the name, address and name of the principal officers of the recipient organization--should be posted on the Internet and made available to the public and posted on the Internet at the time a contract is awarded.
* State agencies should issue quarterly updates on all programs they administer pursuant to such grants.
* The state comptroller should conduct random audits of community projects grants.