Gov. Cuomo’s payment of $16 million to keep CBS’s “The Late Show” in New York, when there was zero real threat of it leaving, is the kind of boondoggle Stephen Colbert might mock in his monologue — if he weren’t the one cashing the check.
But that gratuitous giveaway of tax dollars, announced last year, turns out to have been the tip of a very big and ugly iceberg.
According to records newly unearthed by the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany watchdog group, one source of the CBS money was a massive $1.1 billion slush fund squirreled away by Cuomo and the Legislature over the past three years.
Using the Freedom of Information Law, the center pried loose the first comprehensive accounting of how pols have doled out that cash — and it’s a hodgepodge of pork-barrel spending at its porkiest.
To read the list of 587 projects is to fear that Cuomo is backsliding on the fiscal responsibility that has been key to his brand.
Among the outlays he’s either sponsored or gone along with: $25 million to build a Staten Island outlet mall, $1.7 million to renovate the Hotel Syracuse and $100,000 each for building an Albany skateboard park, updating the Rochester Institute of Technology’s ventilation system and installing sidewalks in Cooperstown.
What do these projects have in common, other than catering to the whim of one elected official or another?
The Empire Center estimates that less than 10% of the $187 million allocated so far is going toward old-fashioned infrastructure, such as fixing up roads, bridges or sewer plants. The bulk is a grab bag of pet projects and corporate welfare — including $5 million to help CBS, a multi-billion-dollar corporation, spiff up a studio for its marquee talk show.
The single biggest item on the list was $35 million to build a research facility at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany — part of Cuomo’s heavily subsidized gamble on luring high-tech manufacturing jobs.
Cuomo and the Legislature created the so-called State and Municipal Facilities Aid fund in 2013 with a budget of $385 million.
At first, to avoid the worst pork-barrel abuses of Albany’s past, the fund was open only to government facilities such as schools, parks and water plants. No cheese museums need apply.
But over the next two years, lawmakers tripled the money and rewrote the rules to allow capital grants for higher education and economic development — the latter opening the door to questionable subsidies for TV networks and outlet malls.
Even if you think some of the projects deserve taxpayer support, they should apply for in an organized and transparent manner — not through a black box that operates at the whim of insiders, with no clear statement of what it’s supposed to accomplish, no breakdown of how much goes to which purposes and no rules for how money gets awarded.
The money flows through the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, which has evolved into a catch-all borrowing agency and frankly declares on its website: “These grants are awarded by local elected sponsors and DASNY does not award the grants.”
Translation: Contact your local senator of Assembly member.
“It revives the syndrome in which legislators come to your town and they’re like Oprah,” says the Empire Center’s E.J. McMahon. “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!”
But there’s no way for the public to know which lawmaker requested which grant unless they choose to boast about it.
Last summer, for instance, Bronx Sen. Jeff Klein dipped into the fund for $4 million in grants to the Sack Wern, Pelham Parkway and Throggs Neck public housing projects, to pay for improved lighting and other upgrades.
Why do tenants in his district get benefits others do not? Perhaps because he’s the leader of a breakaway Democratic faction, giving him extra pull with the governor.
Cuomo used to take a harder line against pork. As attorney general, he demanded that grant recipients disclose any family or financial connection they might have to the sponsoring lawmaker.
As governor, he has continued former Gov. David Paterson’s policy of banning Albany’s version of earmarks, known as member items, from the state budget as an invitation to scandal and corruption.
But now he presides over a $1.1 billion slush fund that spends money in much the same way on much the same stuff — with even less transparency and accountability.
It looks, walks and oinks like the bad old days.
© 2015 New York Daily News