The pork may be returning to the state budget.

State lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo quietly have stashed away $1.2 billion for pet projects, and they are starting to spend it: about $187 million for 588 projects across New York, a report from the Empire Center, a watchdog group in Albany found.

The projects include $1.5 million to fill in a portion of the Inner Loop in downtown Rochester, $1.15 million for improvements to the Broome County arena and $500,000 for an expansion project at Dominican College in Rockland County.

The largest expenditure is $35 million for the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, home of the burgeoning nanocenter. The pot also includes $5 million to CBS to renovate the Ed Sullivan Theater in Manhattan for the “Late Show,” which is going to be hosted by comedian Stephen Colbert.

E.J. McMahon, the Empire Center’s president, said the money started being designated for a State and Municipal Facilities Program three years ago as part of the state budget, and now is being earmarked for projects in lawmakers’ districts.

“This year, they are beginning to take orders: ‘Please send your wish list,” McMahon said.

The state defended the spending, saying the money is being allocated through the budget process and will be closely scrutinized by state officials. Many of the state’s scandals in recent years have centered on misuse of state grants by lawmakers.

“This program provides capital allocations that are subject to a rigorous agency review process, must be approved by the Department of Budget and are limited to certain types of projects,” Morris Peters, a spokesman for Cuomo’s budget office, said in a statement.

“This is not unlike other capital appropriations for roads, infrastructure and economic development that are accessed throughout the year for critical projects as needs emerge but that are not specifically lined out in the budget.”

Still, some lawmakers said they are gathering requests from the community on projects in need in their districts; the state aid would be to reimburse local governments for work already done.

Some projects have already been allocated aid, such as $500,000 to repair a sewer line in Pawling, Dutchess County; $250,000 to renovate a senior center in Southeast, Putnam County; and $140,000 to make improvements to a town park in the village of Groton, Tompkins County.

There was $3 million allocated for FermCo, Inc., which is planing a bioscience manufacturing center at the Eastman Business Park in the Rochester area.

Mark Assini, the supervisor in Gates, Monroe County, said the town sought state funding for local projects when they were made aware that the grants were available. The town is getting $185,000 for a new band shell at Gates Memorial Park, as well as new playground equipment.

“We’re just going after additional funds that have been made available. It’s not like we are asking them to raise taxes for these grants,” Assini said. “We said, ‘Why not have it go to Gates versus Westchester County?'”

But critics said the money isn’t being closely reviewed, and it’s unclear how much each lawmaker would receive for hometown projects.

Indeed, Assemblyman Kieran Michael Lalor, R-Fishkill, Dutchess County, said each Assembly Republican member has been told they can apply for up to $125,000 in capital funding for projects in their districts by Monday. But Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, D-Suffern, Rockland County, said she’s been allotted $1.5 million this year for local projects.

Lalor said he won’t take the money, saying that much of the corruption in the state in recent years has been linked to lawmakers’ improper use of so-called member items. The rules for the new grants say that lawmakers nor their families can benefit from the money awarded.

“Where there’s pork, there is corruption,” Lalor said. He added, “I think I’m in tune with the people of my district. No one once said to me, ‘C’mon Kieran, you have to bring home some bacon.'”

In 2009, amid the state’s fiscal woes, then-Gov. David Paterson ended new earmarks for lawmakers’ local projects; there had been a $200 million annual pot split between the Legislature and governor’s office.

Cuomo kept the ban when he took office in 2011, but lawmakers have pressed for the return of the money — which helps local organizations and helps them curry favor in their districts. Cuomo has faced criticism for including lump sums in the budget that can be used solely at his discretion.

This new pot seems to have different criteria than in past years: The money can be allocated to local governments, libraries and fire departments and to be used for capital needs.

The money is all bonded through the state Dormitory Authority. So far, no project has been under $50,000, the Empire Center’s records — obtained through a Freedom of Information request — showed.

Jaffee defended the spending, saying that lawmakers should have access to funds to help local governments — which have been stung by budget woes, in part through unfunded state-mandated programs.

“This is something that has been helpful in enabling us to respond to community leaders,” Jaffee said.

There was no immediate comment from legislative leaders on how the money would be dispersed.

Some lawmakers and good-government groups, as well as Cuomo, have long questioned the member-item system, saying it lacked transparency and wasn’t allocated fairly. Lawmakers in the majority parties — Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate — had received the bulk of the funding under the old system.

“If we are going to have a program where state money is allocated in legislative districts, funding should be distributed equally and the process must be transparent,” Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County, said in a statement. “The amount of assistance provided to the state’s non-profits and municipalities shouldn’t be determined by conference affiliation. Worthwhile programs that deserve funding should receive it, regardless of geography.”

“It’s one big slush fund of borrowed money,” says Ken Girardin, one of the Empire Center’s policy analysts. “There’s no oversight. There’s no public debate about these projects. We literally have the governor and state lawmakers going in a closed door process, choosing where this money goes, not telling us why they chose it, not telling us who steered it in that direction.”

The first 588 projects include nearly fifty across Western New York. This includes $2.5 million to fix South Park Avenue and Ridge Road in Lackawanna, $200,000 to renovate labs at Medaille, $500,000 to reconstruct Commerce Parkway in West Seneca, and $150,000 to redo the Town Hall parking lot in West Seneca.

“There are things on that list that are nice things. There are things on there that are wants. They aren’t necessarily needs. Every town in the state has a town hall. Every town in the state probably wants a dog park or a skate board park. The question becomes whether the state should be paying for every single town’s town hall, every single dog park, every single skate board park when we have critical infrastructure needs,” says Girardin.

Main Street in the Village of Lancaster is getting money, and so is the ice rink in Depew. But there are also private companies on the list. CBS is receiving $5 million to renovate the Ed Sullivan Theater for when Stephen Colbert takes over The Late Show.

“There are a lot of other priorities that would affect every New Yorker and affect the broader business climate and affect the broader quality of life that the state can be spending money on. This program doesn’t do that,” says Girardin.

The Buffalo Zoo also made the list getting two $400,000 grants for the new Arctic Edge Exhibit.

© 2015 Gannett News Service

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