Defunct ACORN group gets $24,000 in New York state budget

| Albany Times Union

The controversial nonprofit organization ACORN has been closed for almost five years, but that didn’t stop the state Legislature from steering more than $24,000 its way in this year’s budget.

Its survival as a line item in the $142 billion spending plan is an extreme example of what critics say remains a largely unchecked system that allows lawmakers to insert pork-barrel spending into the budget. In a report issued last month, the good-government group Citizens Union called this type of practice “Spending in the Shadows.”

ACORN — Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — has been out of operation since 2010, when it closed its state affiliates and field offices amid intense scrutiny stemming from an undercover video shot by conservative activists.

Because of that controversy, New York Senate Republicans sought to have the distribution of ACORN’s member item grants halted. Congress cut off its funding, and the group filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

ACORN is now “deader than a doornail,” according to Arthur Schwartz, its attorney. He provided a recent letter from the state Department of Taxation and Finance confirming that the group doesn’t exist in New York.

ACORN no longer appears on the Internal Revenue Service’s list of tax-exempt organizations.

The legislative “member items” have been semi-extinct for even longer. Following a series of scandals, lawmakers have not been allowed to insert new ones into the state budget since 2009. Still, millions in reappropriations authorize the spending that was approved in prior budgets but has not yet been spent.

Citizens Union wrote in its report that as of March, the remaining allocations for community projects had been spent down to $87 million, based on figures from the governor’s office.

It was not immediately clear who is responsible for the ACORN reappropriations, but most of the group’s past grants came from Democratic Assembly members from New York City, for initiatives such as helping low-income people do their taxes. The reappropriated funds this year come from money originally sponsored by the Assembly.

A spokesman for Speaker Carl Heastie didn’t return a request for comment.

Budget watchdogs say the grants should be vetoed.

“It’s a small slice of a larger pot of rancid pork, and the governor has the option to veto it, and to free up about $87 million,” said Ken Girardin, spokesman for the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative budget watchdog.

Following the passage of the budget, Cuomo has 10 days to veto such line items.

Oddly, ACORN was provided the same amount of reappropriated money in the 2014-2015 budget, but it was not among the hundreds of such items Cuomo vetoed. The money was apparently never spent.

Budget Division spokesman Morris Peters said the governor’s office had nothing to do with adding the ACORN money to the budget, and that it was added by the Legislature late in the process.

“It is in the bill passed by the Legislature, but it was not part of our resubmitted budget,” he said. Peters declined to comment on whether Cuomo would veto the spending this year.

Rachael Fauss, director of public policy at Citizens Union, said the funds redistributed to ACORN this year stem from two member items: one approved in the 2007-2008 budget for $43,342, the other in 2008-2009 for $52,000. Those items, which come out of what’s called the Community Projects Fund, now have $23,816 and $523 left in them, respectively. The funds are under the purview of the Department of State.

“Maybe it’s just a placeholder for something else,” Fauss said. “The Legislature hasn’t given up these funds, and to keep them they have to put them back in the budget.”

ACORN, which was closely tied to the labor-backed Working Families Party, was reconstituted as New York Communities For Change, based in Brooklyn. ACORN’s former head, Bertha Lewis, started her own new nonprofit agency, the Black Institute.

© 2015 Albany Times Union