ALBANY — Times are tight in New York, state officials say. A recession is looming. Tax receipts are dwindling. Spending must be restrained.
But the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen will survive, thanks to $35,000 in taxpayer money from Republicans in the Senate.
For all the talk in Albany of a state budget crisis, lawmakers have not lost their appetite for pork-barrel spending, an Albany tradition robust enough to withstand any fiscal storm. Budget gaps notwithstanding, the total dollar amount of so-called member items in this year’s state budget will be exactly the same as last year and the year before — $200 million — divvied up between the governor, the Assembly and the Senate.
Besides the harness racing museum, other groups receiving grants this year are the Western and Central New York Safari Club, a hunting club in Williamsville; the Black Radical Congress, a Manhattan-based civil rights group; and Zen Masters, a martial arts academy in Queens.
Of the hundreds of groups receiving funds from member items this year, most are getting amounts in the four- and five-figure range. As in years past, the majority party in each chamber controls the grants; party leaders dole out cash by seniority, and individual lawmakers decide where to award their shares.
The money generally goes to nonprofit groups in lawmakers’ districts, sometimes to offset cuts in government programs, and lawmakers say they are uniquely qualified to identify worthy recipients at the local level.
Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, a Nassau County Democrat, made a grant of $5,000 to the Long Beach Polar Bear Club, which sponsors a well-known annual winter swim in the Atlantic.
“It’s a tradition down here,” Mr. Weisenberg said. The money helps the club purchase sweatshirts, Mr. Weisenberg said, which are then sold to raise money for charity. “Last year we generated almost $300,000 for the Make-a-Wish Foundation,” he said.
The list of recipients is, on some level, a pocket guide to the density of New York civic life. There are churches and block associations, centers for the elderly and immigrant groups, dance troupes and at least one junior circus. Hundreds of thousands of dollars go to youth sports teams, from the Amityville Little League to the Wantagh Football Club.
But to critics, the grants — however well intentioned or well deserved — are merely another form of patronage, and a way for lawmakers to cement their constituents’ loyalty. Occasionally, the items go toward apparent boondoggles: Member items of the past include money for a pro wrestling hall of fame in Schenectady and a cheese museum in Rome. Some lawmakers have even faced criminal charges for diverting member item money to their own pockets.
The spending remained at its usual level even as Gov. David A. Paterson and the Legislature agreed on $1.5 billion in new taxes, fees and loophole closing to raise revenue.
E. J. McMahon, executive director of the Empire Center at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization, decried the level of pork in this year’s budget as excessive, especially in the current economic climate.
“It looks as bad as usual,” Mr. McMahon said. “It’s the same silly thing. It’s as unnecessary in good years as it is in a bad year.”
Besides the $200 million in member items — $85 million each for the Senate and Assembly, the remainder for the governor — there will also be $700 million for capital projects directed by state lawmakers and the governor.
Unlike traditional member items, those expenditures are financed by borrowed money, part of an almost unprecedented spree of state borrowing totaling $8 billion for this fiscal year. By habit, the capital grants are written into the budget as a blank check, with specific allocations made after the fact by legislative leaders and the governor.
In some recent years, traditional member items were handed out the same way, their mysteries and sources undiscernible even to close readers of the state budget. But thanks to a budget reform agreement made last year between the Legislature and Gov. Eliot Spitzer, every recipient is now listed as a separate line in the budget, as was the case before the late 1990s.
Typical was the $2,000 grant directed by Senator Martin J. Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, to the Association of Sicilians United of New York. Mr. Golden said the money would go to help finance a youth soccer league.
“It’s generally for kids and seniors. Our goal is to enhance opportunities for those groups,” he said. “We seed these organizations, and they do their own fund-raising.”
Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman, a Brooklyn Democrat, directed a $2,500 grant to the Doll and Toy Museum of New York City. The museum creates traveling exhibits at city schools and other places.
“They used to be housed in a trailer behind my office,” Ms. Millman said. “A little bit of money goes a long way for some group like that.”
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